Nato called on to accept new states: Former Warsaw Pact countries press for full membership

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The Independent Online
POLAND, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic yesterday gave a guarded welcome to a plan for them to forge closer military links with Nato, but insisted it should be a prelude to full membership.

Meeting in Warsaw, defence chiefs of the so-called 'Visegrad Four' described the 'Partnership for Peace' proposals due to be discussed at next week's Nato summit in Brussels as a useful 'step in the right direction'. But they called on the military alliance to 'confirm its openness to accepting new states (that are) building democracy'.

Although full membership will not be offered at the summit, the Central European countries took heart yesterday from a remark by Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, during talks with Poland's President Lech Walesa. 'The security of this part of the world is of material interest to the United States and the rest of the world,' she said, echoing US Vice- President Al Gore, who on Thursday said that 'the security of these states (Eastern Europe) affects the security of America'. Manfred Worner, Nato's Secretary-General, raised hopes further yesterday when he said it would be possible for the alliance to accept new members from Eastern Europe in a 'carefully measured evolution over time'.

The Visegrad Four have made little secret of the fact that they would have liked Nato to specify a timetable and conditions governing their entry - ahead of the rest of Eastern Europe and former Soviet states - at next week's summit. But it is now clear that they will have to accept the US-initiated Partnership for Peace plan under which they will be offered limited forms of military co- operation and the possibility of joining at some point in the future.

It is not the cast-iron security guarantee for which they had hoped, particularly in the light of the dramatic success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist, in last month's Russian election, and some were clearly unable to hide their disappointment.

'As a pragmatic man, I know that one must seize opportunities,' said President Walesa, one of the most vociferous advocates of speedy Nato membership for the Visegrad Four. 'In Europe today there is an opportunity to leap forward. Crawling would be slower and less efficient.'

The US and other Nato countries are afraid that allowing Central and East European states to join now would be seen as a hostile move in Russia and would strengthen the nationalists.

Many East European leaders have found it difficult to accept the continuing influence Russia can still exert over their affairs. 'It seems that we should talk to President Yeltsin about our joining Nato, not to the West,' President Walesa said.

Not all Four feel so strongly. The Czech Republic this week suggested that immediate Nato membership was perhaps not so important. To underline the point, whereas Poland, Hungary and Slovakia were represented by their defence ministers at yesterday's meeting, Prague sent its deputy defence minister.

BUCHAREST - In a letter to Mr Worner and heads of member states, President Ion Iliescu said yesterday that Romania wanted to join Nato, which he called the sole organisation able to ensure peace in Europe, Reuter reports.