Seven formerly-communist European countries of central and northern Europe have officially become members of NATO Monday in ceremonies in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the new members - Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia - will bring a "new vigor" to the alliance.
The largest expansion of NATO in its 55-year history came in ceremonies at the U.S. Treasury Department, at which the prime ministers of the seven new member countries officially deposited "instruments of accession" with the United States.
Secretary of State Colin Powell presided over the event, calling the enlargement of the alliance to 26 members "a historic step," extending what he called Europe's "zone of freedom and security" from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
He said the seven new member states, once held captive by the tyranny of communism, will bring a new energy to the alliance as it deals with the new challenges of the 21st century including terrorism. "You bring a new vigor to the alliance. You bring a deep and abiding appreciation for what it means to be free. And so you will form the vanguard of NATO's determination to support the yearning of other people for freedom and for peace around the world. NATO at 26 strong is still an open alliance, not just a military coalition but as a community of builders of a Europe whole, free and at peace," he said.
Mr. Powell said he was pleased the prime ministers of three countries aspiring to gain membership - Albania, Croatia and Macedonia - were also attending the event. He said the alliance recognizes their commitment to eventually achieve membership and will do "everything possible" so they will be able participate in a future accession ceremony.
Likening terrorism to the Cold War threat of communism, Mr. Powell said NATO's current enemies seek not only the "death of multitudes, but the death of liberty itself" and said the war on terror must be waged and won "by free people together in an alliance."
In advance of the event, Russia again signaled its irritation over NATO expansion, with a foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow saying the process impinges on Russia's political, military and, to some extent, its economic interests.
But NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Sheffer, who is due to visit Moscow in early April, said the alliance "needs a partnership" with Russia, and said he did not think NATO's long-planned expansion to 26 countries would create greater difficulties in the relationship.