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Estonia Feeling Confident About NATO Membership - 2002-09-06


Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas says, following a meeting with President Bush Wednesday, that the American leader favors a robust expansion of NATO membership. It is now thought that Estonia and six other applicant countries will be invited to join the western defense alliance at their summit in Prague on November 22.

Mr. Kallas is confident that Estonia and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania will be invited to join NATO. Speaking Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, the Estonian leader said his country has worked hard to build up its military and boost defense spending to meet NATO requirements. Estonia is now devoting two percent of its gross domestic product to defense.

In addition to the three Baltic countries, the likely new entrants to NATO include Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria. Mr. Kallas says he does not believe Estonia's good relations with Moscow will be adversely affected by NATO membership. NATO first expanded into formerly communist eastern Europe in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined.

Mr. Kallas, a former finance and foreign minister, says the remaining months of 2002 are crucial for Estonia. Not only will there be November's decision on NATO membership, but the European Union in December is expected to invite several applicant countries to join the 15-member nation Union.

Estonia and its two Baltic neighbors plus Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus are expecting invitations for 2004 EU entry. Romania and Bulgaria have also applied but lag behind in preparations. Macedonia and Albania have applied for NATO membership but they are not expected to win approval this year.

Mr. Kallas, who became Estonian prime minister earlier this year, also met with Congressional leaders during his three-day Washington visit.

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