NATO`s political leaders agreed Wednesday night to admit Croatia and Albania into the military alliance, but after a vigorous debate they effectively rejected President Bush`s bid to put two former Soviet republics on the path to membership, according to Washington Post.
The invitations to Croatia and Albania will bring NATO membership to 28 countries, the organization`s first expansion in six years as it renews its push to integrate Europe under a common security umbrella. The alliance will not, however, accept a third Balkan state, Macedona, because Greece decided to veto its application because of a long-standing dispute over the former Yugoslav republic`s name.
The opening of a NATO summit here exposed a major fissure over the future of the alliance as a reinvigorated Russia increasingly flexes its muscles 17 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The leaders and their foreign ministers engaged in what a senior U.S. official called "spirited discussion" behind closed doors of Bush`s proposal to offer road maps to membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two countries at odds with their former masters in Moscow since democratic revolutions within the past five years.
Russia has firmly opposed membership for the two countries, saying it would target them with nuclear missiles in response. The NATO leaders insisted Russian objections should play no role, but they made clear Wednesday night that there was no consensus for Ukraine and Georgia to move forward at present.
"I would be happy to be proven wrong, but for the moment I do not expect membership action plans for Georgia and Ukraine here at Bucharest," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said after Bush and other NATO leaders met at a dinner that ran two hours over schedule.
The U.S. official, briefing reporters under White House ground rules that did not permit him to be named, said Bush would still press the case during formal sessions Thursday but acknowledged he may have to settle for a vaguer statement that NATO would still consider Ukraine and Georgia at a later date.
"It`s not a question of defeat," the official said. "If the alliance can come together and can show that the door remains open and the process of new members coming into NATO continues, that will be a success."
Bush appeared to be doing better in winning support for the war in Afghanistan and a missile defense system in Europe. Responding to his pleas for more forces, France came through with a promise for another battalion, perhaps as many as 1,000 troops, to be sent to relatively calm eastern Afghanistan.
That would free up more U.S. troops to head south, where the radical Taliban movement has been staging a fierce comeback. The U.S. reinforcements would satisfy Canada, which has threatened to pull its troops out of the south if they did not get help.
Officials said other countries were poised to commit more troops as well, though probably not as many as NATO commanders have sought. British officials had previously said they plan to send another battalion of perhaps 800 troops, Poland has already committed 400 more and Romania will send additional troops. Bush has also ordered another Marine brigade of about 3,500 troops to go to Afghanistan this month.
The alliance was also working on a joint statement broadly supportive of Bush`s plan to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic over the virulent opposition of Russia. The language of that communique was still being crafted, and it was not clear how strongly it would back the U.S. effort.
The main drama, however, centered on the question of expansion. NATO invited in its first three new members in Eastern Europe in 1997 and seven others in 2002, irritating Russia both times but helping to anchor former communist states to a unified and democratic Europe.
The decision to admit Albania and Croatia takes NATO deeper into territory that was at the heart of bloody conflicts after the breakup of Yugoslavia began in 1991. Croatia fought a war for four years against Serb rebels aided by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces. Albania was a key player as ethnic Albanians in the Serb province of Kosovo fought for independence, culminating in a 78-day air war led by NATO in 1999. After nine years under international protection, Kosovo declared statehood in February.
Two other former Yugoslav republics, Bosnia and Montenegro, are now seeking to open preliminary discussions with NATO about eventual membership, a process called "intensified dialogue." With Bush`s support, the NATO leaders Wednesday night reached a consensus to grant those requests.
Macedonia appeared to be left on the roadside. Although all NATO leaders agreed that the tiny landlocked country of 2 million had met NATO standards, the alliance operates by consensus and Greek objections to its name were enough to thwart its ambitions for now. Greece considers the name Macedonia to be an implied threat to its territorial integrity because it has a province by the same name.
Most nations, including the United States, have recognized Macedonia by that name, although Greece and the United Nations still call it the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. Appathurai said NATO would readily bring in Macedonia if it ever resolves the dispute with Greece.
The debate over Ukraine and Georgia produced a more serious schism within the alliance. The two countries were not seeking membership invitations now, but rather programs known as membership action plans, under which they would restructure government institutions and armed forces over a period of years with an eye toward an eventual place in the alliance.
Germany and France were opposed, arguing that this would be an unnecessary provocation to Russia and that the two were not ready because most Ukrainians are against joining NATO and Georgia has not resolved internal conflicts with two breakaway regions.
Bush, who had the backing of nine East European members, argued passionately for the two former Soviet republics, stopping in Ukraine on his way here to demonstrate support and then giving a speech and making two media appearances to press his case.
"Ukraine and Georgia is a very difficult issue for some nations here," he said during a session with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer."It`s not for me. I think that these nations are qualified nations to apply for membership application."
Appathurai said other NATO countries agreed in principle but disagreed on timing. The question, he said, was "not of whether but when."