Barely three weeks into his job as Latvia’s new prime minister, Indulis Emsis already has a place secured for himself in the history books. It will be under his watch that Latvia formally joined the NATO defense alliance. (And, if his government survives for at least another month, his administration may also get credited for being in power when the country joined the European Union.)
Emsis and new Latvian Defense Minister Atis Slakteris joined leaders from six other Eastern European nations in a March 29 afternoon ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. Besides Latvia, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Also present at the White House ceremony were representatives from Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, which are still seeking NATO membership.
“Our seven new members have built free institutions, they’ve increased their military capabilities in the span of a decade,” U.S. President George W. Bush said during the ceremony, according to a transcript of his speech. “They are stronger nations because of that remarkable effort—and the NATO alliance is made stronger by their presence.”
Earlier, Emsis had delivered his country’s NATO accession documents to the U.S. State Department. The United States is the official depository for NATO documents.
Another ceremony was scheduled April 2 at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.
The festivities come amidst renewed interethnic conflict in Kosovo, fears of large-scale terrorism and a still smoldering rift between various European countries and the United States about the war in Iraq—all issues that may have some effect on NATO’s future. Meanwhile, some Russian politicians are heating up their criticisms of Latvia’s and Estonia’s policies toward their ethnic Russian populations. At the same time, NATO jet fighters are to begin patrollling the skies over the Baltics, giving the defense alliance its farthest reach ever to the east.
Latvia and the other nations were asked to join NATO in November 2002.
The road to joining NATO and the European Union—two icons of Western Europe—has been a long one, stretching almost from the third week of August 1991, when Latvia regained its independence after a half century of Soviet occupation. The process has required Latvia to reform its laws and military structure to meet NATO requirements. Latvia also bumped up its defense budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product, for a total of more than LVL 110 million.
Along the way, both homegrown opposition and external pressure have raised questions about whether and why Latvia should join. At home, some critics have said Latvia is giving up too much by joining the defense alliance and the economic club, a few comparing the move as simply replacing one “union” with another. Ironically, Web surfers entering “nato.lv” in their browser on the chance that they will find information about Latvia and the defense alliance arrive instead at an anti-NATO and anti-EU site.
Externally, opposition came from both the east and the west, but none have continued to be as forceful as Russia.
“The present round of expansion is characterized by the fact that the Baltic states are joining NATO in the conditions of the unsettledness of a whole set of problems still lingering in their relations with Russia,” Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in March 29 statement.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin at one point conceded that the Baltics could join the defense alliance, others have kept up the war of words, usually hitting on Latvia’s and Estonia’s relationship with their Russian-speaking populations.
Also of concern to Russia, Yakovenko said, is that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are not yet signatories to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The CFE Treaty, signed in 1990, is an agreement between NATO states and former Warsaw Pact states to limit nonnuclear weapons such as tanks, artillery and aircraft.
Most recently, a former Russian air force general said his country should down NATO planes if they stray over the border from the Baltics.
The first of those planes—four F16s—left Belgium on March 29 and flew to the Siauliai air base Lithuania, from where they will commence patrolling Baltic skies, according to the Belgian Ministry of Defense. In early March, a NATO-grade radar system was activated at Audriņi in eastern Latvia, according to the Latvian Ministry of Defense. The radar has a range of 450 kilometers.
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