Nato embraces Eastern partners in biggest step for half a century

Poles, Hungarians and Czechs delighted, but Russia infuriated as old Warsaw Pact allies invited to join
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The first three states from the former Soviet bloc have been invited to join the Nato military alliance in 1999.

Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, announced the historic decision to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic to join yesterday afternoon. The announcement, which Mr Solana said was "a defining moment", signals the biggest single expansion in Nato's 48-year history and is the first to embrace countries which not long ago faced the 16-nation western alliance in an armed stand-off.

It is an assertion that Nato won the Cold War, and Russia denounced Nato's expansion in the strongest terms. "We still consider expansion the biggest mistake in Europe since the end of the Second World War," Yevgeny Primakov, the foreign minister, said in Moscow. The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, was pointedly absent from the summit.

Slovenia and Romania, whose candidacy was supported by many Nato countries, missed out, but Mr Solana gave them a special mention along with the Baltic States, after a long wrangle between Nato officials to devise wording acceptable to all 16 members. He stressed the door to Nato membership remained open.

Yesterday's decision at the Madrid summit means countries with a population totalling 60 million, and armed forces of 382,000, will join Nato in 1999, increasing Nato's territory by 14 per cent.

Right to the end, the allies argued vigorously about who should be invited to join. The majority, led by France, wanted five, including Slovenia and Romania. But the US, the dominant power in Nato, backed by Britain, only wanted three. Yesterday morning, the smallest number - the number on which all could agree - was chosen.

The only big remaining hurdle for the successful three is ratification by the parliaments of the 16 existing Nato members. They will also have practical military steps to take, but those are already under way. The Nato charter says new members must be accepted unanimously. Once they accede it is irreversible: there is no procedure for ejecting anyone from Nato. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "It is a realistic and sensible agreement. Of course, some other countries would like to have gone further. But this is not a political club. This is a military alliance."

The decision to invite only three members was a disappointment for France and other Mediterranean countries, but they accepted it rather than impose a veto. That would have risked causing an irreparable breakdown in the Alliance.

The supporters of five new members exacted a significant concession. Nato sources said a "strong consensus" was emerging that the balance of power between the US and European Nato members needs adjusting. "European defence needs a new balance between Europe and America at the heart of the alliance, which at present has an unbalanced European-American relationship in the decision-making process", the French President, Jaques Chirac, said.

By mid morning yesterday, when the list was down to three, the main argument concerned the wording of the statement, stressing that the door to alliance membership was still open. Countries which had wanted five new members wanted an explicit reference to the progress made by Slovenia and Romania towards fulfilling the conditions for membership. Britain and the US did not, arguing it might offend the three Baltic States , which also want to join.

In the end, Mr Solana mentioned Slovenia, Romania and the Baltic States: "No European democracy will be excluded from consideration. In keeping with our pledge to maintain an open door we will keep [this] under continual review."

The next round of invitations is expected to be issued at the summit to mark Nato's 50th anniversary in 1999, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will join.

Mr Blair had a 90-minute meeting with President Bill Clinton in his hotel after dinner on Monday night, when they discussed enlargement. Mr Blair briefed Mr Clinton on the situation in Northern Ireland, and thanked him for supporting peace efforts in the province.

The British and Americans felt that increasing alliance membership by five to 21 members, an increase of nearly a third, would be going too far. It would increase the area of the Alliance and its population by 20 per cent. British officials pointed out that Britain has the biggest joint defence programme with Romania, bigger than any of the countries which had supported Romania joining.

Although Nato enlargement has provoked strong opposition in Russia, it has been softened by the signature of the Founding Act on 27 May, which attempts to prevent Russia being isolated. Today, Nato will sign a similar agreement with President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, who is representing his country at the summit.

t Madrid (AP) -- Nato leaders expressed concern about the crisis in the Bosnian Serb Republic. Without mentioning Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader locked in conflict with President Biljana Plavsic, they warned they would not accept a power grab. "We will not tolerate any recourse to force or violence," Mr Clinton and the other leaders said.

Cordial alliance: Leaders of the Nato nations during a break in their Madrid summit yesterday. The leaders are (left to right): Jose Cutileiro, the Western European Union general secretary; Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister; Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister; Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister; Suleiman Demirel, the Turkish President; Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor; the US President, Bill Clinton; Costantinos Simitis, the Greek Prime Minister; Javier Solana, the Nato general secretary; David Oddsson, Icelandic Prime Minister; Romano Prodi, the Italian President; Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister; Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg Prime Minister; President Jacques Chirac of France; Willem Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister; Thorbjorn Jagland, the Norwegian Prime Minister; Tony Blair; and Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese Prime Minister Photograph: Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters