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U.S. Lawmaker Urges Slovenia Be Admitted to NATO

November 07, 1998|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Opening the first round of the next big debate over NATO enlargement, a key member of Congress urged Friday that the Atlantic alliance extend membership to Slovenia at the organization's April summit in Washington.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), who serves as president of NATO's consultative parliamentary wing, the North Atlantic Assembly, described the proposed offer to the small former Yugoslav republic as an important signal that NATO expansion will not end after its initial phase.

After a stormy, two-year debate on both sides of the Atlantic, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 16 existing members agreed in July 1997 to open entry negotiations with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Those talks have since been completed, and the three new members are scheduled to be formally welcomed into the alliance during the Washington summit, an occasion that will double as NATO's 50th anniversary celebration.

"It's critically important for the summit to reinforce the credibility of NATO's open-door policy," Roth said. "Slovenia matches, and in some cases surpasses, standards set by the three [current] invitees."

His comments, made during a formal presentation on Capitol Hill of a 90-page blueprint for the alliance's future, are certain to draw fire from several directions. Likely foes include those long opposed in principle to expanding the alliance, those who believe that NATO's doors should be quietly closed behind Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and those in Europe--especially France--who believe that Slovenia, and also Romania, should have been among the first admitted.

The Clinton administration's insistence that the initial enlargement be limited to three nations generated major strains with European allies. Virtually on the eve of last year's Madrid summit at which the invitations were issued, French President Jacques Chirac was rebuffed in a personal appeal to President Clinton to include Romania.

On Friday, Roth said that economic difficulties diminished the sheen of Romania's candidacy.

"Others have applied for membership, and I wouldn't rule any of them out, but I'm not suggesting any of them should be invited now," he said.

Aside from Slovenia and Romania, applicants for NATO membership include Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

Slovenia is a country of just under 2 million people tucked between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. The suggestion by Roth, an enthusiastic proponent of NATO enlargement, to limit the next expansion to the tiny alpine nation reflects the highly sensitive nature of the issue.

In fact, many believe that the administration wanted Slovenia dropped from the list of candidates last year precisely because it would leave a viable, easily acceptable candidate for a quick next round they felt necessary to dispel the idea that membership had been closed for the foreseeable future.

In addition to impressive credentials that include the highest per capita gross domestic product in Central and Eastern Europe and a small but impressive armed forces, Slovenia has other attributes. Its size makes it cheap and easy for NATO to integrate, while both its size and location tend to diminish any potential confrontation with Russia over its membership.

In an interview this week, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek said he discussed his country's NATO membership during a meeting Wednesday with Clinton at the White House. Drnovsek said Clinton was encouraging but provided no assurances on timing.

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