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Latest update : 2009-04-01

Croatia has promptly expressed its readiness to help NATO efforts in Afghanistan after officially joining the alliance, along with Albania, during a ceremony in Washington. Further expansion of NATO is, however, unlikely in the near future.

REUTERS - NATO's steady post-Cold War enlargement to the east will take a pause after the admission of Albania and Croatia at a summit on Friday, while the alliance refocuses on warming its ties with Russia, diplomats said.

The soon-to-be 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.

"This is not an enlargement summit," said one alliance diplomat, playing down prospects of any serious talk among NATO leaders this week on the status of aspiring members.

The summit hosted by France and Germany on their Rhineland border will invite the leaders of Albania and Croatia to take their place at the table on Friday alongside counterparts from the 26 existing states.

Formally, the two became NATO members on Wednesday after a short ceremony in Washington, an alliance spokeswoman said, although the summit will be the crowning event of their entry.

The Balkans duo 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.

"Almost nothing has moved since then," said another NATO diplomat, reflecting the weariness inside the alliance with a dispute that comes way down the list of NATO priorities.

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.

Appetite for enlargement has also diminished in the European Union, partly due to the economic crisis and costs of absorbing 12, mostly ex-communists new members.

US policy shift

While a summit last year promised Ukraine and Georgia that they would become alliance members some day, 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.

While the West attacked Russia's August incursion into Georgia in a dispute over Moscow-leaning rebel regions, NATO countries were also dismayed that Tbilisi ignored warnings not to try to retake one of them by force in the first place.

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

"Membership of Georgia and Ukraine is ages away," said a third NATO diplomat.
"The Bush administration always put the pressure on, but the Obama administration is not euphoric about using NATO as tool to democratise," said the envoy of a perceived shift in U.S. policy under Obama on the two states.

That in turn could facilitate a re-warming of NATO-Russia ties that were 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.

A formal ambassador-level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) is due in April, followed by Russian participation in a meeting with NATO chiefs of defence 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.

Date created : 2009-04-01