BUDAPEST NATO members should overcome their misgivings about further enlargement of the military alliance and continue to take in new members after Montenegro joins later this year, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Slovakia said on Thursday.
The small Balkan state was invited last December to join the U.S.-led alliance and is set to become its 29th member at a summit in Warsaw in July over strong opposition from Russia.
But NATO members France and Germany have doubts about further enlargement just now, particularly regarding taking in Georgia. They argue that NATO would be unable to defend the ex-Soviet state in the event of a conflict with Russia.
Speaking on the sidelines of a security conference in Budapest, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said NATO should complete the accession process of Montenegro and keep its door open to Georgia as well as Macedonia, a Balkan state which is also on a fast-track plan for membership.
"If NATO does not continue the enlargement process that would also erode NATO's credibility significantly," Szijjarto told reporters.
His Slovak counterpart, Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, speaking at the conference, said it was obvious before the invitation was issued to Montenegro to join that NATO was itself divided about whether to continue the enlargement process.
"To speak about enlargement of NATO is not a universally accepted view in NATO currently ... It took an awful lot of time and effort to build consensus on the invitation for Montenegro," Lajcak said.
Referring to Russian involvement in Ukraine's conflict in the east, he said: "Rather than freezing NATO enlargement we think the trouble in Ukraine has only strengthened the case for it."
Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told the same conference that joining NATO would bring economic prosperity for his country.
"We are extremely happy with the fact that Montenegro is going to become a NATO member state this summer," he added.
At the Warsaw summit, Poland wants NATO to agree to deploy 'substantial' numbers of forces and equipment in central and eastern Europe to ensure the region's security in the face of a more aggressive Russia.
Russia has threatened to retaliate against any such moves. NATO has instead offered to beef up exercises and rotate forces in and out of the region.
"Slovakia like Hungary are not asking for troops... but we definitely support (NATO's) forward presence," Lajcak said.
Ted Whiteside, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, told the conference that while during the Cold War, deterrence meant stationing hundreds of thousands of troops in Central Europe, NATO will not do that now.
"We need mobile forces nimble enough to come to the assistance of others," Whiteside said.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Richard Balmforth)