By James G. Neuger
NATO rebuffed bids by Ukraine and Georgia to be put on a path toward membership, dealing a blow to President George W. Bush’s goal of extending the western military alliance into the former Soviet heartland.
Allied leaders refused to offer pre-membership plans to the two ex-Soviet republics, driven by concern in western Europe about antagonizing Russia. In a separate setback, Greece snarled alliance expansion into southeastern Europe by blocking entry for the Republic of Macedonia. Two other Balkan countries — Croatia and Albania — will be invited to join, alliance leaders agreed late yesterday in Bucharest.
Discord over North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion casts a cloud over Bush’s legacy, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin an opening to exploit a divided alliance and to strengthen Russia’s hold on its sphere of influence.
“Bush expended a great deal of political capital teeing this one up,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who was on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. “Despite the heavy lifting, Washington’s proposal was shot down.”
Bush went into the summit calling for pre-membership plans for Ukraine and Georgia to “send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states.”
Germany and France led the opposition to declaring the two eligible for membership, arguing that Ukraine’s society is split and that secession movements within Georgia would import instability into NATO.
“I would be happy to be proven wrong, but for the moment I do not expect membership action plans for Georgia or Ukraine here,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters late yesterday after the first session of the summit.
Russia, weakened by the breakup of the Soviet Union after the Cold War, was powerless to stop the first two rounds of NATO expansion, which brought former Soviet satellites into the alliance between 1999 and 2004.
Putin has threatened to aim missiles at Ukraine if it joins NATO and hosts bases. Russian lawmakers are using Georgia’s bid for membership to give further encouragement to ethnic-Russian separatist movements in two Georgian regions.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had lobbied hard for the pre-membership status, seeing it as a seal of approval for Georgia’s fledgling democracy and a line of defense against Russia.
Russia “will cry victory,” Saakashvili said yesterday in Bucharest. “What’s at stake here is whether peace will be preserved or we will go back to the conflicts and regional tensions.”
New NATO members that spent a half-century under the Soviet yoke were the loudest advocates of expansion further east. “NATO has to stay the course,” Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu of Romania, which joined in 2004, told a German Marshall Fund conference in Bucharest yesterday.
The NATO action plans guide would-be members in overhauling their armed forces and bolstering their democracies. The plans would not, however, automatically lead to membership.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer sought to soften the blow on Ukraine and Georgia by saying the alliance is committed to bringing them in, even if the timing is uncertain.
“This can never be a question of `whether’,” De Hoop Scheffer said at a joint briefing with Bush yesterday.
Debate now focuses over what language to use to reaffirm NATO’s “open door” policy for Ukraine and Georgia, a senior American official told reporters late yesterday.
In southeastern Europe, tensions dating back to the era of Alexander the Great wrecked a consensus to admit three countries in order to write a final chapter to the wars that ripped apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Greece objected that Macedonia’s name implied a territorial claim on the northern Greek province of the same name. Last- ditch United Nations-brokered talks failed to resolve the dispute.
Macedonia fails to meet the “crucial conditions of good neighborly relations,” Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos told reporters in Bucharest.
Macedonia, the only republic to break free of Yugoslavia without firing a shot, said it negotiated in good faith and accused Greece of putting regional stability at stake and tarnishing the credibility of NATO.
“We have gone our extra mile and now it’s up to Greece to think twice about its position,” Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said in a telephone interview. He said no new negotiations are scheduled during the summit, which runs until mid-afternoon tomorrow.
The name dispute has vexed Macedonia since independence, outlasting a tentative settlement from 1993, when the new Balkan state was admitted to the UN as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”
More than 100 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Russia and China, recognize Greece’s neighbor as the Republic of Macedonia. Greece leads a minority, along with France, Germany and some others, that recognizes it only under the UN name.
A veto of Macedonia would also frustrate U.S. policy. Bush yesterday urged allies to “extend the circle of freedom” by taking in all three countries in the Balkans.
Greece also ruled out making an offer to Macedonia conditional on a settlement of the name dispute during the year or more that allied governments will need to ratify the membership treaties.
Milososki said Macedonia gave a “positive” response to the latest UN proposal — “Republic of Macedonia (Skopje).” Skopje is the country’s capital. Greece objected to that name, Milososki said.
Allied leaders are intent on bringing Macedonia in “as soon as possible” once the name dispute is settled, NATO spokesman Appathurai said.