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Asia Times
May 9, 2003
NATO's eastward push into Eurasia
By Mark Berniker

The future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been the subject of much speculation, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that part of its redefinition is a widening role in Eurasia. While band-aids are being put on the splinters of the US-European military alliance, the Bush administration is supporting the ascension of some of the newly independent Eurasian states into NATO. And now that the war in Iraq is over, NATO appears to be trying to find its new role, and focus is on its expansion eastward.

The US Senate on Thursday voted overwhelmingly in favor of expanding NATO to include seven former communist states in Eastern Europe. Six of the applicants - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia - supported the US-led war to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They and Slovenia were approved with little debate.

The legislatures of the other 18 NATO nations also must vote on the applications. Most have yet to do so, but all are expected to approve. The alliance says that the seven new members should be inducted by May 2004.

NATO's spread into Eurasia comes against the backdrop of a strained relationship with Russia, not to mention fellow NATO allies France and Germany. But diplomatic efforts are picking up speed and there is news that President George W Bush and President Vladimir Putin will meet in St Petersburg on June 1 for a summit. Despite the public acrimony from Moscow regarding the war in Iraq, there is every indication that both sides are moving to patch up US-Russian relations. However, that doesn't mean that Putin is excited about a widening NATO presence in territories once part of the crumbled Soviet empire.

One topic sure to be towards the top of Putin's list with Bush in June is NATO's goals in the newly independent states of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia, China and Iran are among a number of neighboring countries not terribly thrilled with the ongoing expansion of NATO from Europe to Eastern Europe, and deeper into Eurasia.

As part of its interest in redefining itself, NATO has made several moves that could lead to widening military alliances with the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. NATO secretary general George Robertson will travel to Georgia and Armenia on May 14-15, which could be a prelude to the two Caucasian states joining the eastward moving military alliance.

And American interests in the region are being advanced by Bruce Jackson, chairman of the nongovernmental US-NATO Committee, who has met with a number of top officials in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Jackson has said it is possible some, or all of these three countries, could be extended membership to NATO in the future. But all three countries have also been widely criticized by human rights observers, and analysts question the level of democratization and pluralism in the Caucasus. But NATO's interest is strategic, and there is no question of the value for the US to have access to military bases on the periphery of the Middle East and Central Asia as part of the Bush administration's ongoing "war on terrorism".

On May 5, a group of NATO experts were in Georgia as part of the military alliance's review of Georgia's official application to join NATO. NATO could make a decision on Georgia's application in late 2003, or perhaps early 2004. However, on Thursday it was reported that Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said that NATO military experts were concerned that a lack of funding was hindering reforms in the Georgian armed forces as required for admission to NATO.

On the other side of Georgia's border, NATO also has regional military exercises planned for Armenia in May as part of a plan being called "Cooperative Best Effort 2003". The exercises will involve military units from 17 different countries over a 10-day period as part of NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program. And there is a new lobby group in Washington created to advance the NATO-Georgian alliance, called the Georgia-Caucasus Council of the United States which it says is "working to bolster the Georgian democracy and economy through strengthened ties to the US and inclusion in NATO".

Azerbaijan has also said that it hopes to join NATO in the near future. Like Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan has been taking the steps to comply with NATO requirements for membership in its alliance. With these developments, it seems possible that several or all of the Caucasian states could be extended formal invitations to NATO at its 2004 summit. But there are serious questions whether any of these countries have come close to living up to the international community's expectations for human rights and domestic democratization. For example, the Council of Europe has called Armenia the aggressor in the ongoing dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh with the Azeris.

NATO's growing interests doesn't appear to stop in the Caucasus as the military alliance is stepping up activities in Central Asia. It also seems that NATO in its redefinition process is not limiting the scope of its activities, moving from strictly military affairs into crisis assistance and collective security operations. NATO recently participated in natural disaster relief programs, along with the United Nations, as part of "Ferghana 2003" in NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program and NATO's Disaster Response Unit. NATO also provided some assistance in the aftermath of the recent earthquakes that shook areas near the Kyrgyzstan, and its border with China.

If there were any questions whether the US intends on using NATO as an arm of its foreign political and economic policy, look no further than a recent speech by one of US Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief lieutenants. Mark Grossman, deputy secretary for political issues at the US State Department, recently stated that "all newly established democracies from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea along with the old ones should have the same safety situation and freedom and a possibility for integration into European institutions".

As NATO looks east, the leaders of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan held a two-day security meeting in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe in late April. These six countries are signatories to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, one could say Putin's attempt at cobbling together a military alliance out of the former Soviet states in the face of NATO's expansion. Putin clearly tried to put his best foot forward to breathe life into an alliance, which has yet to do much. The alliance is now looking to open military bases and step up border security activities. The group set a January 1, 2004 deadline for establishing a rapid reaction force in Central Asia, which is expected to include 6,000 troops and at least two dozen warplanes deployed at Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is also the only country in the world to hold joint military exercises with the Chinese.

Part of what is making Russia and China edgy is the growing role of NATO near and along its borders. NATO is being asked to provide support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. NATO is filling a vacuum as the continual search to find another country to lead the mission became problematic. Khanabad in Uzbekistan is expected to be the staging post for NATO's increased operations in post-war Afghanistan as it gets ready to take over ISAF in August. Robertson will visit Uzbekistan from July 7 to 11.

And one can expect a series of visits by top NATO officials to Eurasia in the coming months as the alliance moves aggressively to expand its aegis. The policy is clear: the US wants to extend its influence deeper into Central Asia through NATO, while putting itself in a position to curb Russian, Chinese and Iranian political interests in the region.

Mark Berniker is a freelance journalist specializing in Eurasian political and economic affairs.

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