The Washington Times

In November, NATO countries will meet in Prague to issue invitations for alliance membership to a number of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. Prime ministers from the current group of aspirants, numbering 10 in all, gathered here last week for a fifth and final time before Prague to reiterate the commitment they first set out in Vilnius, Lithuania, two years ago – to work together and in support of each other toward alliance membership.

But what seemed a distant dream, or at least a long-term strategy, for the Vilnius Group two years ago looks very different today. The most recent round of enlargement brought in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The task of building a political consensus within the alliance for enlargement even to the three best-situated countries of Central Europe was a complicated one. Now 10?

Yet the case in principle for NATO providing the security architecture for a “Europe whole and free” was sufficiently settled in the previous round to invite bigger thinking this time. Add to that the real-world success of the first round in dispelling critics’ fears, as well as a Russia now far more interested in doing business with NATO than opposing it. The sum is an alliance poised to endorse the “one for all and all for one” approach with a very robust and geographically broad enlargement, inviting as many as seven of the 10 to join: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.

So what was especially striking about this meeting in Riga, dubbed by organizers “The Bridge to Prague,” is how swiftly its focus shifted to the bridge out of Prague: What comes next?

NATO has a lot of thinking to do about its mission in the years ahead. And given the likely scale of the coming enlargement, the post-Prague temptation could easily be an alliance directing its attention inward.

But what about those who don’t make it this time [Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, among the Vilnius Group]? And what about the rest of Europe, where democratic reformers are struggling against often difficult odds and rulers are weighing the risks and benefits of opening up their fragile systems to the currents of reform? What will become of the Balkans, of Ukraine and Moldova and even Belarus? Will they make the most of the historic post-Cold War opportunity to integrate their countries into Europe? Or will they miss the moment and be fated to languish outside?

Those are questions whose answers will be determined not just in the countries in question, though first of all there, but also in the capitals of current and incoming alliance members. The specter is that of a “velvet curtain,” as one Riga participant characterized it, descending around the in-group and closing out everyone else.

No one understands this better than the president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who used the occasion of his speech in Riga to propose a new initiative designed to draw other countries in. “Let us not only focus on the present situation in the region in the area of security, not only on the preparations for the Prague summit, but let us also look to the future. Let us think about the creation of a joint platform of cooperation.”

He envisioned the Vilnius Group countries plus Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic reaching out to include other states in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe in order “to unite two streams of integration,” with the European Union and NATO. “The countries of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe are not big powers, but small or medium-sized states that need cooperation and mutual support – as ‘unity is strength.'”

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase were among others looking beyond their own countries’ immediate prospects. Mr. Nastase called on his Vilnius Group colleagues to “start thinking of the future . . . especially as promoter of the ‘open door policy’ of the future alliance.” Mr. Brazauskas said, “We are convinced that the Vilnius process has to go beyond the Prague summit. . . . The creation of a Europe, whole and free, should not end with the membership of our countries.”

Mr. Kwasniewski will be in Washington later this month to meet with President Bush, at which time he is expected to flesh out his Riga initiative. But already – as Poland has demonstrated in its staunch support for a robust Prague enlargement and as the countries likely to be invited in Prague are starting to demonstrate as they look ahead – one of the most encouraging signs in favor of what NATO Secretary General George Robertson has called the “democratic unification of Europe” is surely the way in which those who most recently came in reach out to those who are struggling to do so.