Challenges Await NATO Newcomers

Those countries set to join NATO will discover that their invitation was just the first stage of a long process.

Challenges Await NATO Newcomers

Those countries set to join NATO will discover that their invitation was just the first stage of a long process.

This week's Prague summit announcement that seven countries will be invited to join NATO has some far-reaching implications for the invitees, aspiring nations and southeastern Europe in general.

Of the seven new invitees, three - Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia - are from south-east Europe. Together with Slovakia and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, these countries will now start an accession process that should be complete before the alliance's next summit in May 2004.

A further three south-east European countries - Albania, Croatia and Macedonia - did not receive invitations on this occasion, but were given a clear message that NATO's door remains open.

When the celebrations are over in the seven successful nations, it will soon become apparent that the invitation was just the beginning of a demanding ongoing process of ratification and preparation - none of which can be considered a formality.

The first countries to join the newly-expanded post-Cold War NATO in 1997 - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - found their entry was postponed for several months while they implemented a series of security measures to protect the sensitive information alliance membership would give them access to.

However, the seven new members are in a far stronger position than those first three countries.

All have participated in the organisation's membership action plan, MAP - a programme designed to prepare nations for entry to the alliance - for the past three and a half years.

Nevertheless, they will have to find qualified personnel to give them an effective presence in alliance structures. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all struggled to find civil servants and military personnel who were fluent in English and French as well as possessing the relevant skills and experience.

The NATO that the seven invitees will eventually join is a very different organisation from that which they originally aspired to join in the Nineties.

The package of measures unveiled at this week's Prague summit is designed to transform the alliance into an institution equipped to address the security challenges of the 21st century.

This includes, for example, both the will and the capability to intervene beyond the Euro-Atlantic area if necessary. In this revamped alliance, countries will have benefits - including that of the collective defence guarantee provided by article five of the Washington Treaty - but they will also have many obligations.

In spite of participating in the MAP process, the invitees' armed forces are not on a par with those of existing alliance members. Moreover, the process of military reform is still in its early stages and even with another MAP cycle, these countries' forces will not be fully interoperable with their NATO counterparts.

Indeed, it is only when they become NATO members, thereby benefiting from the alliance's protective umbrella, that they will no longer have to cater for all their own security needs and will be able to develop niche capabilities.

Despite this, as the United States and other larger NATO allies have refocused their security priorities on the war against terrorism, all invitees have already increased their contributions to alliance-led and other international operations.

In addition to its participation in NATO-led operations in the former Yugoslavia, Romania, for example, has contributed 500 soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

And Slovenia has doubled its contribution to the Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina to 200 soldiers at a time when the overall size of the contingent is being reduced from 18,000 to 12,000.

The decision to invite only seven of the ten countries aspiring to NATO membership was based on consideration of five areas. These were a functioning democratic political system and market economy; treatment of minority populations in accordance with Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, guidelines; resolution of outstanding disputes with neighbours and a commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to the alliance and achieve interoperability with other members' forces; and democratic-style civil-military relations.

Although none of the invitees has an unblemished record in every area, the existing NATO members felt that they had made sufficient progress in recent years to merit invitations and would benefit from membership in other ways, thereby expanding the area of peace, prosperity and stability in Europe.

By contrast, conditions in Albania and Macedonia are deemed too unstable for these countries to obtain membership invitations at this stage, and new arrangements will now have to be found to keep them engaged in the MAP process.

In the case of Croatia, NATO membership was never on the cards at Prague because Zagreb only joined the MAP this year.

When Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia join NATO, the alliance's geography will change and with it the regions in which members have vested interests.

In effect, the crisis regions of south-east Europe will soon be surrounded by alliance territory, thereby ensuring that the task of rebuilding peace and stability there will remain a NATO priority.

Christopher Bennett is editor of NATO Review and a former IWPR journalist

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