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Estonians Celebrate Invitation to Join NATO - 2002-11-21

A little more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people in Estonia are celebrating something many doubted they would ever receive -an invitation to join the NATO alliance. The official invitation came Thursday, at a meeting of NATO leaders in Prague.

Clinking champagne glasses, members of the Estonian parliament toasted Estonia's invitation to join NATO.

The former prime minister of Estonia, Mart Laar, was one of the leading forces behind Estonia's bid to become a NATO member. He says it will enable Estonia, which was forcibly incorporated in the Soviet Union during World War II, to finally have a voice in its own future. "I think, for the first time in history, we will really sit at this table, where the things that are so important to us and influence us are decided," he said. "And that's really something new for us."

The former prime minister is so enthusiastic about NATO that, in 1999, when he was prime minister, he promised to shave off his beard, if Estonia ever joined the alliance. At the ceremony Thursday, he said he would soon be on his way to the barber shop.

For many people in Estonia, NATO membership was so unimaginable during the Soviet years that they did not believe the news, until they heard it announced on Thursday.

The head of the NATO Support Committee in Estonia's parliament, Liis Klaar, was just a girl when her family fled Estonia during the Soviet occupation. She said joining NATO, an organization set up to contain the Soviet Union, was unthinkable even a few years ago. "We dreamed of it for 10 years," she said. "We worked for it for five years. And now we have achieved it."

In addition to Estonia, its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, also received invitations to join the security organization Thursday.

They are expected to become formal members in 2004, along with four other countries.