NATO's expansion plans ran into trouble as members expressed doubts over Ukraine and Georgia joining the defense alliance. The fast track bid of the Balkan trio of Croatia, Macedonia and Albania also hit a major snag.
NATO foreign ministers scramble for a family picture after the meeting in Brussels
The informal meeting of NATO's foreign ministers in Brussels on Thursday, March 6 was supposed to prepare the way for the so-called “Adriatic Trio” to join the transatlantic military alliance as well as put Ukraine and Georgia on an eventual path to NATO membership.
While ministers seemed ready to give the nod to Croatia and Albania, the Balkan countries might be entering without neighboring Macedonia. The former Yugoslav republic's bid hit a major roadblock on Thursday in the form of a Greek veto threat.
Balkan membership not a done deal
Who should belong to NATO?
Greece has refused to accept Macedonia due to displeasure over the country's name, which it shares with the northern Greek province of Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
According to NATO officials and diplomats, all three of the Balkan countries have largely met the technical criteria to join the 26-nation military alliance. All were expected to join at the same time.
"Greece supports the candidacy of Albania and Croatia," said Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, but added that her country would veto Macedonia's entry.
The European Union has been eager for the Balkan countries to join NATO in the hopes that it will bring stability to the region, particularly in light of Kosovo's recent declaration of independence from Serbia.
The European Union underlined its interest in Balkan stability on Wednesday when it launched a new initiative to promote civil society and enhance economic and social development in all seven of the Balkan countries. The measures include easing visa requirements, more funding for student scholarships and extensive loans from the European Investment Bank.
Greece nixes Macedonia
Macedonians have rioted over the "name issue"
Yet NATO membership for Macedonia won't come without Greek approval. All members of the alliance have to agree before a new member is admitted. Bakoyannis said "nobody likes vetoes" and promised that "Greece will continue to work in a constructive spirit for a mutually acceptable solution."
One diplomat said that she had urged the ministers not to "force Greece to commit political suicide," as the issue could provoke nationalism within Greece and add to tensions elsewhere in the region.
NATO Secretary-General De Hoop Scheffer underscored that the alliance will not overrule Greece in the dispute.
"There's an ally, Greece, and a non ally, Macedonia," he said Thursday after the meeting ended. “NATO works by consensus.”
De Hoop Scheffer said he hopes to find a solution by the time of a NATO summit planned for the Romanian capital of Bucharest on April 2-4.
Macedonia makes its case
Croatia is ready to join
Macedonia took its public relations fight to London's The Times newspaper, where it took out a two-page advertisement listing the reasons why it would make a good NATO member and insisting on its right to keep its name.
Skopje has proposed using the name “Macedonia” in all cases except with Athens, where it has offered to use a name acceptable to both parties. So far, Greece hasn't agreed, although a NATO envoy is currently trying to broker a deal.
"We would hope that Greece and Macedonia will be able to accept a way forward," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after the meeting.
Unclear MAP for the future
There are worries about Georgia's commitment to democracy
But it wasn't only Macedonia's membership that hit a snag. The former Soviet countries of Georgia and Ukraine had hoped to be offered a membership action plan (MAP) similar to what the Balkan countries had gone through. MAP prepares a country for eventual entry into NATO. But it was unclear whether they had the enough support to begin the MAP process.
Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday he remained “skeptical” about both countries' chances.
In Ukraine, public opinion polls show many people strongly oppose joining NATO. And NATO members were alarmed by Georgia's decision to declare a state of emergency in December 2007 to put an end to opposition protests.
The “Russia factor”
Russia has opposed NATO expansion
Besides democracy worries, there was also concern that allowing Georgia and Ukraine into the NATO club would anger Russia. While Russia can't block NATO membership, there's a sense that the move would further aggravate an already-strained relationship. Russia has deeply opposed both Kosovo's independence and United States missile shield plans.
“We have a new president in Russia and I think the European Union wants to put its ties with Russia on another footing,” said Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn. “We have to take the interests of others, not only of NATO members, into account.”
Even the US, which has backed both countries' accession bids, seemed reluctant to push the issue Thursday. At the end of the meeting officials said only that "a broad spectrum of views" had come up in relation to the two countries.
A Plan for Afghanistan
German Foreign Minister Steinmeier is sceptical of Georgia and Ukraine's chances
While NATO seemed stalled on expansion plans, it did agree on a comprehensive Afghan strategy Thursday. The plan combines desires by some allies for more help in fighting the Taliban with demands from other allies that attention be paid to reconstruction and nation building.
US, British, Dutch and Canadian soldiers have done the brunt of the fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan's south while allies like Germany, France and Italy have been reluctant to send troops there.
Secretary of State Rice, who had criticized NATO allies' reluctance to join the fighting, sounded a conciliatory note Thursday.
"Germany, like others, is contributing to the efforts and that is greatly appreciated," Rice said.
However, she stressed that defeating terrorism and the Taliban remain a priority. Reconstruction, governance and rule of law is not enough, Rice said.
"We have to win against the insurgents, we have to help the Afghans, train the army, and it is a shared view that we need more help in that regard," she added.