Muted welcome for three new Nato members

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AS CZECHS, Poles and Hungarians celebrated their formal accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) with flags, fireworks and champagne, the only acknowledgement from Washington - where far more lavish celebrations will mark the 50th anniversary of the Western alliance next month - was a flat statement of welcome issued by the White House.

An event that constituted one of the signal achievements - perhaps the sole lasting foreign policy achievement - of the Bill Clinton presidency was hailed in three sentences - not even spoken by the President, but issued by his office.

The presence of the three new members, it said, would "make America safer ... It will make Nato stronger. For years they struggled with dignity and courage to regain their freedom. And now they will help us defend it for many years to come."

Mr Clinton, along with the massed ranks of the White House press corps, was in his home state of Arkansas, where he dedicated his childhood home in the small town of Hope as a national monument.

The formal Nato accession ceremony was banished to the small town of Independence in Missouri. Here the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland signed the accession documents and handed them to the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

The venue was explained by its historical relevance. Independence is the home town of the late President Truman and the small university campus includes his memorial library, where the archives relating to the creation of Nato are kept. But the original Nato treaty was signed in Washington, and although the main speech was made by Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, President Truman stood behind him. Ms Albright had brought only a US Senator for support.

The spectre at Friday's feast was Russia. Washington, it was believed, did not want to offend Russian sensibilities by making overmuch of the West's Cold War victory and the recovery by the three central European countries of their sovereignty. It did not want the new members' accession, with the inevitable references to 1956, 1968 and Poland's Solidarity, to cloud next month's 50th anniversary of Nato. Nor did it want to tip the delicate mission to Belgrade by the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, the wrong way.

Not even the ultra-modest surroundings of the Truman Library, however, nor Russia, nor the absence of the President could prevent the ceremony from becoming a moving postscript to the Cold War. In sentiments echoed by all three ministers, Bronislaw Geremek spoke of "Poland returning where she has always belonged, in the free world". Jan Kavan for the Czech Republic said Nato membership meant his country would "never again become a powerless victim of foreign invasion", and all three pledged to meet their obligations as fully as they would enjoy the benefits of membership.