Nato new recruits hail end of 'Iron Curtain divisions'

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LESS THAN 10 years after freeing themselves from Communism and leaving the military orbit of the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland yesterday completed their accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in a ceremony shot through with symbolism and emotion.

In the modest auditorium of the Truman memorial library, on the edge of the former president's Missouri hometown of Independence, delegationswatched with undisguised satisfaction and pride as their foreign ministers signed the final documents of accession.

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, whose parents were Czech immigrants, added her signature, extending at a stroke the full security guarantees of the Western alliance to the three Central European countries. Officers from the three new Nato armies then added their flags to those of the existing Nato states, executing sharp salutes as they left the platform.

The venue was said to have been chosen by Ms Albright to illustrate the line linking the original treaty, which came into being under Truman's watch 50 years ago, and the accession of states that had found themselves excluded by the Iron Curtain. Churchill had given his "Iron Curtain" speech a little more than 100 miles away, also in Missouri, at Fulton.

A more cynical view was that the selection of out-of-the-way Independence was dictated less by historical symbolism than by Washington's desire not to irritate Russia. Unhappy about Nato expansion, it has sulked about the extension of Nato into Central Europe and warned against further growth.

Yesterday's hastily arranged (and slightly chaotic) ceremony undercut a planned prime ministerial ceremony in Brussels, which was postponed until next week. It also ensured Nato's expansion would not be flaunted in front of Russia at next month's 50th anniversary summit of Nato in Washington.

That event, as Ms Albright stressed, would celebrate inclusiveness, partnership and the future, not the division of Europe. The implication was that Washington did not want the references to Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1981 that proliferated yesterday to spoil the party next month.

Nothing, however, could detract from the delight of the Czech, Hungarian and Polish foreign ministers yesterday - all of whom gave their speeches in English - or their determination to do well by their new allies. For the Czech Republic, Jan Kavan said his country would "be a full part of Nato's collaborative defence system" and was "determined not to become a burden".

For Hungary, Janos Martonyi said its experience meant "we know the value of freedom". Joining Nato was "not just about security, but about returning Hungary to her natural habitat ... to those who share the same ... values and goals. Hungary has come home; we are back in the family."

Bronislaw Geremek, for Poland, said that it was "with joy and pride" that Poles "celebrate the end of the bipolar world symbolised by the Iron Curtain".