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NATO Examines Issues

While the situation in Afghanistan dominated last month's meeting in Bucharest of heads of state and government from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, other issues were also discussed.

Traditionally, NATO summits have offered alliance leaders the opportunity to formally invite new countries to join. And the Bucharest meeting was no exception. Albania and Croatia were asked to begin accession talks -- a process NATO officials say will be concluded by the end of July.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, 10 countries from Eastern and Central Europe have become NATO members. While inviting Albania and Croatia to join NATO, alliance leaders did not do the same for Macedonia, officially known as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Macedonian's NATO Bid

Robert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration and now a scholar at the RAND Corporation, says Greece threatened to veto Macedonia's membership bid.

"And at NATO, any country can veto any decision -- and certainly a decision for someone else to join. The Greeks fear that the Macedonians, by calling themselves Macedonia, will have claims against a Greek province of the same name. And indeed there are some people in Macedonia who feel that way," says Hunter. "So what the allies said is, 'Okay, you guys work out the name and as soon as you do, this place I would call Macedonia, will join NATO.' So that's really a matter of just putting pressure on the Greeks and the Macedonians to come up with something. And as soon as they do, the deed will be done."

The debate over Macedonia's name began when it sought independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Tomas Valasek, a NATO expert at the London-based Center for European Reform, says the alliance's inability to invite Macedonia was a humiliation for the country's leaders.

"It certainly was. And I think we should think long and hard about how we can prevent Macedonia from turning its back on NATO. It is a very important country, one that came dangerously close to coming apart in early 2000," says Valasek. "And I think all of the allies need to think long and hard about what we can do to help maintain Macedonia stable and peaceful in the absence of a membership invitation which was expected at the summit, but we had failed to deliver -- which I think is a shame on the alliance."

Georgia and Ukraine

NATO leaders also declined requests by Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics, to begin the process of accession known as a "Membership Action Plan."

According to Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations, "It is in some ways the biggest surprise of this summit and a pretty important setback for the Bush administration because if you look at what the president had done in the month prior to the summit, a lot of it was a hard sell for Ukraine and Georgia. President Saakashvili of Georgia was in Washington and that was all about getting ready for a Membership Action Plan." "President Bush then goes to Ukraine on his way to Bucharest -- again, a hard sell for getting these two countries on the road to membership. And then Bush gets to Bucharest and gives yet another speech, emphasizing the importance of bringing these countries closer to the alliance. And then that evening, essentially the answer is, 'No, we're not ready.'"

But Bush administration officials point to the final summit communiqué that states NATO leaders agreed "these countries will become members of NATO." But no time frame was given.

Charles Kupchan says there were several reasons for NATO's decision not to grant Georgia and Ukraine permission to begin the accession process.

"One was a calculation by France, Germany and others that right now is not the time to further create an estrangement with Russia. And Russia does not want to see NATO continue to move closer, this time to former Soviet republics. And therefore, the Europeans felt it a good time to delay. There are too many other important issues up in the air [with Russia] including energy supplies, Kosovo, missile defense, Iran, nuclear arms control, conventional arms control," says Kupchan. "The Europeans said, 'Why add yet another irritant to the relationship?' And then there are legitimate concerns about the readiness of Ukraine and Georgia to head toward membership."

That view is shared by Aslé Tojé with the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo. "Had the applicants been more suitable for NATO membership, it would have been more difficult to say, 'No.' But frankly, looking at a country like Ukraine where only roughly one third of the population is clearly in favor of NATO membership and a country like Georgia, where two separatist regions [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] could bring the alliance into direct confrontation militarily with Russia, I don't think it was all that difficult for the Europeans to say 'no' to this," says Tojé.

Missile Defense

In a major success for President Bush, NATO leaders endorsed the American proposal for a missile defense system made up of 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic -- a system vehemently opposed by Russia. "I was actually quite surprised they managed to get this agreement, considering that a large number of European states -- led by France and Germany -- were very skeptical toward this missile shield and more notably the Russian reaction to the missile shield," says Aslé Tojé. "As it happens, the behavior of Russia and the quite bellicose rhetoric on behalf of President Putin helped create alliance unity on this issue. And the Americans actually managed to get an alliance consensus on the missile shield, which I think only six months ago would have been difficult to imagine."

Experts say ultimately, NATO will build a European-wide missile defense system in which the American installations in Poland and the Czech Republic will play a significant role.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.