U.S. President George Bush Fridayone step closer to membership in NATO. As VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington, the leaders of the 26 NATO countries agreed at a summit in Romania earlier this year to invite the two Balkan nations into the alliance.
President Bush formally endorsed Albania and Croatia's bid to join NATO, after applauding the two countries for overcoming communism and war, to become peaceful democracies.
"The people of Albania and Croatia are helping move the world closer to a great triumph of history - a Europe that is whole, a Europe that is free and a Europe that is at peace," he said.
At a White House ceremony late Friday, Mr. Bush was joined by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in celebrating the progress made by the alliance's two newest prospective members.
"We are now one major step nearer to welcoming into the alliance Albania and Croatia, two more countries who have demonstrated, by word and by deed, that they are willing and able to shoulder the responsibilities of NATO membership," said Scheffer.
The two Balkan nations will be eligible to join the Western alliance when all 26 member countries have approved their addition. The U.S. joins Hungary and Slovakia as the only countries to sign the papers so far.
While Mr. Bush noted the reforms Albania and Croatia have made in their democratic systems, he acknowledged that more work remains.
"The road to reform does not end with the acceptance into NATO. Every member of the alliance has a responsibility to enhance, promote and defend the cause of democracy. I am confident that Albania and Croatia will deliver on their commitments to strengthen their democratic institutions and free-market systems," he said.
The president said the U.S. hopes to welcome other Balkan countries into NATO. "In the space of a single decade, this region has transformed itself from a land consumed by war to a contributor to international peace and stability. America looks forward to the day when the ranks of NATO include all of the nations in the Balkans, including Macedonia," he said.
Mr. Bush also said the United States remains committed to the NATO aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. He also said the door to NATO membership is open to the people of Serbia, if they choose that path. At this year's NATO summit in Romania, the alliance rejected U.S. attempts to invite Ukraine and Georgia to join, fearing that the move would provoke Russia.
Mr. Scheffer agreed that expansion to more countries is an alliance priority. "Both countries have set an example for others to follow, and we will encourage and support all those who aspire [to] that same goal," he said.
NATO officials hope Albania and Croatia will be able to participate as full members in the 2009 summit