April 1, 2009 / 3:08 PM / 10 years ago

After Balkans duo, NATO enlargement to slow

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO’s steady post-Cold War eastward enlargement will take a pause after it celebrates the admission of Albania and Croatia at a weekend summit, while the alliance refocuses on warming ties with Russia, diplomats said.

The now 28-nation military pact firmly rejects any idea that Moscow has influence on who becomes a member. But NATO capitals have long acknowledged as a factor the Russian belief that enlargement is an unfriendly encroachment on its space.

Moreover the unreadiness of would-be members Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia, and the more pragmatic approach of U.S. President Barack Obama on the issue, means NATO expansion is squarely on the back burner for now.

In an interview with Reuters Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed the importance of ties with Russia, saying its involvement was essential to solving pan-European security questions.

“That’s why the goal remains to create a real partnership in the long-term, build trust and find ways to cooperate. Despite all the difficulties I see, there’s no alternative to this,” he said.

At the same time, Steinmeier urged Moscow to help solve regional conflicts and criticized its announcement that it will rearm its military in the face of NATO’s expansion as poorly timed and said Kremlin rhetoric must be watched closely.

A NATO summit last year promised Ukraine and Georgia they would become alliance members some day, but the two ex-Soviet states did not win their bid for fast-track membership plans after opposition from Germany and other European allies. If anything, their membership hopes have dwindled since.

The summit Friday and Saturday hosted by France and Germany will invite leaders of Albania and Croatia to take their place as full NATO members after the two countries formally joined the alliance at a ceremony Wednesday.

“NOT AN ENLARGEMENT SUMMIT”

But alliance diplomats played down prospects of any serious talk among NATO leaders on the status of aspiring members. “This is not an enlargement summit,” one said.

Backing off on enlargement could facilitate a re-warming of NATO-Russia ties frozen after the Georgia war. The alliance is keen to secure Moscow’s help for its operation in Afghanistan and has already relaunched relations at an informal level.

Diplomats stress that Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership is a long way off.

“The Bush administration always put the pressure on, but the Obama administration is not euphoric about using NATO as tool to democratize,” said on NATO envoy of a perceived shift in U.S. policy under Obama on the two states.

While the West attacked Russia’s August incursion into Georgia, NATO states were also dismayed that Tbilisi ignored warnings not to use force in the first place.

There is similar exasperation with internal squabbling of the leadership of Ukraine, where — as Moscow unfailingly points out — polls show only a minority favor NATO membership.

A formal ambassador-level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council is due in April, followed by Russian participation in a meeting with NATO chiefs of defense staff in May and finally an NRC meeting at foreign minister-level a few weeks later.

Poland’s foreign minister even suggested this week that Russia should one day be allowed to join NATO — resurrecting an idea that few think will become reality for many years to come.

Two accession waves have extended NATO’s reach across the old iron curtain, with the 1999 entry of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland followed in 2004 by Slovakia, the three Baltic states, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Albania and Croatia could have been joined by Macedonia, but its hopes of accession were dashed last year when Greece vetoed its bid over a continuing 17-year dispute over its name, which is also that of Greece’s northernmost province.

Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Ilona Wissenbach and Marcin Grajewski; writing by Mark John; editing by Diana Abdallah

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