NATO invites Latvia to join defense alliance

As the festive mood fades following last week’s historic NATO summit meeting in Prague, politicians and military leaders in Latvia are getting to work preparing the country for eventual admission to the defense alliance.

NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) last week extended invitations to seven nations to begin accession talks with the defense alliance. Invited were Latvia as well as Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romanis, Slovakia and Slovenia.

While the event was laden with symbolism—as if seven more nails were driven into the coffin of communism—NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson on Nov. 21 underlined the “heavy responsibilities” the candidate nations are taking on. Meanwhile, U.S. President George Bush traveled Nov. 22 from Prague to St. Petersburg to reassure President Vladimir Putin that the West is not out to bury Russia. And then Bush jetted to Vilnius, where on Nov. 23 he was greeted by an enthusiastic Lithuanian crowd chanting, “Ačiu! Ačiu!” (Thank you! Thank you!), according to news reports.

The candidates now have to pass NATO muster for military readiness. In addition, they will have to navigate diplomatic dances to get NATO member states’ legislatures to approve of the expansion—including convincing the U.S. Senate, a job that Baltic lobbyists in America are not considering a fait accompli.

The Prague summit also saw President Bush push NATO members for assurances about their willingness to participate in a possible attack on Iraq should United Nations-sponsored weapons inspections fail to disarm the country of its weapons of mass destruction. NATO members also debated a greater role for the defense alliance that goes beyond merely stepping in should one of its members be attacked. Instead, NATO may see itself involved in the wider “war on terrorism” in areas beyond Europe.

Baltic leaders, lobbyists react

Political leaders in the Baltic countries and lobbyists in the United States reacted favorably to the invitation.

Although the invitation was expected, it nonetheless marked a culmination of several years’ effort. At one point, it appeared only Lithuania might get invited in a first wave of NATO expansion. And looming over all three Baltic countries, but especially over Latvia, has been continued Russian antipathy to enlarging the defense alliance into territory that once was claimed by the Soviet Union.

Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, in a statement released by her press office, said the invitation is an historic and joyful event for the nation. “Nothing will ever be the same for Latvia,” she said. NATO membership will offer Latvia security, Vīķe-Freiberga said, but it will also require the nation to work hard to meet NATO standards.

Valdis Pavlovskis, president of the California-based Baltic-American Freedom League, noted in a widely circulated e-mail that “our work is not yet done.” He called on Baltic Americans to thank those politicans who helped push for the NATO invitation.

Implicit in his note is the message that U.S. senators will have to be convinced to vote in favor of NATO expansion. Although Congress has expressed its support for NATO enlargement, actions such as the Oct. 7 adoption of two pro-expansion resolutions have been seen as mostly symbolic.

Latvia’s role in NATO

If accession negotiations are successful, Latvia could become a member of NATO in 2004.

But with a total of only 5,400 personnel on active duty (plus about 14,000 part-time members of the National Guard), according to the Ministry of Defense statistics, what can a small military like Latvia’s offer to NATO?

The answer, in one word, may be specialization. Writing in Time magazine’s Europe edition, James Geary noted that the Baltics’ strategic importance to NATO is BaltNet, a USD 100 million radar system financed by Norway and the United States that is able to peak into Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave.

Latvia’s specific contribution may be in the art of defusing or detonating bombs, according to Roger Boyes, a reporter for The Times of London. In a visit to the Ādaži training ground, Boyes learned that more than 50,000 shells have been exploded there since 1993. Latvian troops are expected to travel to the former Yugoslavia on a bomb-clearing mission.

NATO meeting in Prague

NATO leaders and the heads of state of seven candidate countries meet Nov. 21 in Prague. (NATO photo)

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga speaks during the Nov. 21 NATO summit meeting in Prague. (NATO photo)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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