NATO Offers Membership to Two of Three Balkan Candidates

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

BUCHAREST, Romania, April 3, 2008 - NATO formally offered membership today to two of the three Balkan nations President Bush had strongly advocated for acceptance.

Albania and Croatia were accepted by the 26 other NATO members to begin the accession process after hours-long discussions of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's principal decision-making body, this morning.

"Both these nations have demonstrated the ability and the willingness to provide strong and enduring contributions to NATO," Bush said at a meeting of the council in which representatives of the candidate nations were present. "Both have undertaken challenging political, economic and defense reforms. Both have deployed their forces on NATO missions. Albania and Croatia are ready for the responsibility NATO brings, and they will make outstanding members of this alliance," he said.

Greece blocked Macedonia, the third Balkan nation under consideration, from receiving an invitation to join. Greece objects to the nation using the name Macedonia, saying it implies claims on a Greek province of the same name.

U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, in a briefing after the meetings to the White House traveling press, said NATO agrees that Macedonia "clearly" is ready for NATO membership, but that a mutually accepted name should be resolved between the two countries before an invitation to membership is extended.

"We regret that we were not able to reach consensus today to invite Macedonia to join the alliance," Bush said. "Macedonia has made difficult reforms at home. It is making major contributions to NATO missions abroad. The name issue needs to be resolved quickly, so that Macedonia can be welcomed into NATO as soon as possible."

Bush said NATO needs to intensify its engagement with Macedonia to ensure it becomes a member.

"Albania, Croatia and Macedonia all know the difference between good and evil, because they clearly remember evil's face," Bush said. "These nations do not take their freedom for granted, because they still remember life without it. These nations respect the hard work of building democracy, because they brought it to life in their countries."

In other NATO issues, Georgia and Ukraine were not invited to start the membership action plan, a necessary step toward membership. Hadley said a strong consensus is in place within the alliance that the two former Soviet republics eventually will join NATO, but the timing of starting the plan is in question.

Some members questioned whether the democratic reforms in the two countries have taken root and their political systems are stable, Hadley said. Also, Georgia has unresolved disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he said.

Still, NATO members agreed to a strongly worded statement that "NATO welcomes Ukraine and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO," Hadley said.

"That's a very strong statement, giving them a clear prospect of NATO membership," he said.

Instead of starting the MAP process with the two countries, NATO opted instead to step up its engagement with the countries, and their status will be reassessed in December. NATO's foreign ministers will decide then whether Georgia and Ukraine have made sufficient progress to begin the membership action plan. The decision does not have to go back to NATO for consensus, Hadley said.

"Would we have preferred to have MAP today? Of course. Do we think we achieved the strategic decision we needed from the NATO alliance that these countries will be members of NATO? Absolutely," Hadley said.

Two other countries moved toward eventual membership during the talks today.

NATO agreed that an "intensified dialogue" should begin with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Both are considered in the "Partnership for Peace" stage of working toward membership. Intensified dialogue is the stage just before being invited to begin the membership action plan. NATO also agreed that an intensive dialogue would be offered to Serbia.

In other news from the NATO summit conference, a communique is expected to come from the meetings today delivering what U.S. officials wanted on the issue of missile defense, a senior administration official said, speaking on background. The United States expects a NATO endorsement of its missile defense plan in Europe, as well as plans to develop a NATO-run short- and medium-range missile defense system, the official said.

The statement is expected to say that ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to allies' forces, territory and populations. Also, it is expected to task the heads of state with developing a plan for the NATO missile defense architecture to bring back to the 2009 summit.

Missile defense was not a specific agenda item for the summit, but is expected to be discussed through the day and tomorrow, when Russian President Vladimir Putin joins the talks tomorrow for the NATO-Russian Council. Putin has expressed concern over U.S. plans for the missile defense system, and officials have been working to ease his concerns that the system could be used against Russia.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced in the early meetings his country would send another battalion of troops to help in Afghanistan. The troops will deploy to the eastern provinces of the country, allowing U.S. troops, who have been successful at squelching problems there, to move to the embattled southern provinces.

The Canadian parliament had agreed to extend Canada's troops in the south only if allies provided more resources. Other countries are expected to announce troop increases.

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NATO Offers Membership to Two of Three Balkan Candidates [ ]