NATO's eastern expansion plans run into trouble

7th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Disagreements over ties and names plague the meeting.

Brussels -- NATO's expansion plans ran into trouble on Thursday because of a wrangle over a name and disagreement over whether to establish closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia.

But foreign ministers did make progress on the launch of a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan aimed at bridging longstanding divisions within the alliance.

The informal meeting in Brussels was designed to prepare the groundwork for NATO's April 2-4 annual summit in Bucharest.

And much of the discussion focused on whether to invite Albania, Croatia and Macedonia into the alliance.

Although NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer conceded that all three had worked hard "to meet the standards NATO sets for its members", Macedonia's chances were being blocked by Greece, which objects to its name on the grounds that it could imply claims on the northern Greek province of Macedonia.

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis on Thursday again accused the Macedonian government of intransigence and of applying a "nationalistic logic".

"Nobody likes vetoes, but we have no other choice," she said.

Since all 26 NATO members must agree before a new country can join the alliance, officials said an invitation to Macedonia would not happen until the name issue was resolved.

A UN special envoy has been visiting Macedonia and Greece in an attempt to find an agreement between the two sides.

The country is currently referred to as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia by the United Nations, and proposed alternatives include Independent Republic of Macedonia, New Republic of Macedonia and Democratic Republic of Macedonia.

Ministers also held a first round of talks on the membership aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia.

But Ukraine's desire to join the alliance is hampered by the fact that public support for NATO membership in the country is limited, while Germany and other European members are skeptical about Georgia's prospects because of frozen conflicts in the region.

"I will not hide that I am skeptical, but we will discuss that calmly today," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the start of the talks.

Many allies are also concerned that establishing close ties with two countries that lie on Russia's borders may further strain relations with Moscow.

De Hoop Scheffer nevertheless ruled out "enlargement fatigue" and insisted that NATO's doors remained open.

"I hope that by the time the (Bucharest) summit takes place we will be able to say that the NATO family is growing again," the NATO chief said.

Ministers also expressed relief at the fact that no inter-ethnic violence had broken out in Kosovo since the predominantly ethnic Albanian province declared independence from Serbia on February 17.

NATO has been in Kosovo since 1999, when its 78-day air campaign ended inter-ethnic strife in the province, and currently has about 16,000 peacekeeping troops under a UN mandate.

On Afghanistan, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed NATO plans for a comprehensive Afghan strategy that would combine the demands by some allies to focus on fighting the Taliban and the desire by others to do more on the reconstruction and nation-building side.

American, British, Dutch and Canadian soldiers have been left to face the brunt of the fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan's volatile south amid reluctance from allies like Germany, France or Italy to send their troops there.

Asked about Germany's role in NATO's ISAF mission, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded a conciliatory note on Thursday, saying: "Germany, like others, is contributing to the efforts and that is greatly appreciated."

However, she stressed that defeating terrorism and the Taliban remained a priority.

"What we have to be able to do is to make certain that we can fulfill every requirement. We cannot just fulfill the requirements that have to do with reconstruction, governance and the rule of law," she said.

"We have to win against the insurgents, we have to help the Afghans, train the army, and it is a shared view that we need more help in that regard," she added.

NATO's ISAF mission in Afghanistan can count on about 40,000 soldiers, most of whom are American.

DPA with Expatica

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