NATO leaders have concluded a two-day summit in Prague by reaching out to countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and reassuring Russia that the alliance's eastward expansion does not pose a threat. NATO officials say they are satisfied with the summit, during which member countries pledged to re-tool the alliance to make it more able to fight terrorism and to address new security challenges.
The second day of the NATO summit was devoted primarily to a meeting of NATO leaders and their counterparts from the organization's security partners, stretching from Ireland to Uzbekistan.
NATO views the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia as its next frontier and plans to strengthen ties with them after concentrating for most of the last decade on Eastern Europe.
With Thursday's invitation to seven eastern European countries to join the alliance by 2004, NATO Secretary General George Robertson made it clear the defense organization wants to help former Soviet republics even further to the east fight terrorism and other challenges to the region's stability. "I see the partnership becoming ever more relevant, especially as you go further east and into the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia, where these countries are not going to join NATO in the immediate future but where their needs are great and the potential for trouble is enormous," said George Robertson.
The emphasis on strengthening NATO's ties to these partners came after the alliance issued an invitation to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
It also followed NATO's pledge on Thursday to set up a new strike force and buy new equipment to better face new threats to security like terrorism and rogue states that seek or possess weapons of mass destruction.
NATO leaders were reassured by President Bush's statement that the alliance is America's most important relationship. And they responded by backing a U.S.-inspired statement warning Iraq it faces serious consequences if it does not cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.
NATO also sought to calm Moscow's anxieties that its expansion up to Russia's border will not threaten its security. Mr. Robertson says that, although he understands Russian unease over enlargement, NATO has also established a new relationship with Moscow in which both sides seek to deal with such issues as terrorism. "So Russia has nothing to fear from an enlarged alliance that is tied in with Russia and looking at key issues and dealing with them together," he said.
Even though Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia was more interested in the alliance improving its ability to fight terrorism than in its enlargement, at least two Russians manifested their unhappiness in Prague on Friday at Mr. Robertson's final news conference.
As the news conference ended, the two shouted in Russian that NATO is worse than the Gestapo and accused the alliance of killing Serbian children during its 1999 bombing campaign over Yugoslavia's suppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
One of the young men threw a tomato at Mr. Robertson, but missed him. They identified themselves as members of a far-left ultra-nationalist group called the National Bolshevik Party of Russia.
Although they were rapidly hustled away by security officers, reporters were left wondering how, amid the tightest security measures Prague has seen in years, the two men managed to obtain press passes and get in to the news conference.