NATO candidates' flaws are looking less important

Prime ministers meet to press case jointly


BUCHAREST, Romania - A year ago, the idea that Romania and Bulgaria might join NATO this autumn in the next round of enlargement seemed laughable, and many thought that the membership aspirations of the Baltic nations might be held hostage again to relations with Moscow.

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and with the war on terrorism, the southern flank of NATO suddenly seems more important, and the domestic blemishes of such candidate countries as Romania less important.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia apparently has decided not to make too big a fuss over Baltic memberships in return for more influence with NATO, a better relationship with the United States and a freer hand in Chechnya, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The prime ministers of 10 NATO candidate countries are meeting in Bucharest in another joint effort to press their case. They are receiving warm messages of general support from President Bush and from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who came to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to enlargement.

The Bush administration, concentrating on the war in Afghanistan and beyond, sees the chance at the NATO meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, in November to complete the current plans for NATO enlargement by taking in up to seven countries - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Three other countries represented at the meeting here - Albania, Macedonia and Croatia - are considered to have little chance of being offered NATO membership in this round.

Bush officials stress that no final decision on American preferences is likely until late September because of the election planned for Slovakia, where Vladimir Meciar, a strong nationalist, could return to power, once again undermining his country's chance of joining NATO.

Yesterday Armitage praised Romania's and Bulgaria's quick efforts to help the United States and NATO after Sept. 11. He noted that Bulgaria has allowed U.S. tanker planes and about 200 U.S. soldiers to use an air base at Burgas, and Romania sent troops to participate in the Afghan peacekeeping force in Kabul.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy noted that his government had never before allowed a foreign country to use its air bases, "not even the Soviet Union," and that the Bulgarian parliament had declared itself, after Sept. 11, a "de facto ally of NATO."

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said his country and Bulgaria were seen as increasingly important to stabilize the Balkans, to fill the hole in NATO between Hungary and Turkey, to be in a better position to protect oil pipelines and to serve as a bridge to Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakstan.

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