NATO leaders in Prague for the two-day NATO summit have made a historic
decision to invite seven former Eastern Bloc nations to join the alliance
in a landmark expansion. The new members - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia - will be admitted to the
alliance in 2004. NATO Secretary General George Robertson called the
invitation a "crucially important decision". The Czech President
Vaclav Havel has welcomed the historic move:
"The alliance's decision to open itself once again to the new European democracies signifies that the unnatural division of Europe has come to an end in real terms and that the last surviving remnant of the Iron Curtain, that strange psychological wall that used to separate the old democracies from the post-communist ones, is finally breaking down."
The Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has arrived at Prague's Ruzyne airport to take part in the meeting of NATO and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council on Friday. The alliance had made it clear that Mr Kuchma was not welcome at the Prague summit due to suspicions that Ukraine had sold a radar system to Iraq. Last week, the Czech government refused to grant an entry visa to the Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, who had wished to attend the summit.
NATO leaders have agreed to create a rapid Response Force which is expected to be used in global anti-terror missions and operations against so-called rogue states. In a statement, leaders of the 19 NATO states said the new force with land, sea and air power would have initial operating capability by 2004 and be fully operational by 2006. The statement did not say how many troops would be in the force but the figure of 20,000 had been proposed by the United States. NATO's Response Force (NRF) will consist of "a technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable" elements, said the statement.
Riot police on Thursday rebuffed about 1,500 anti-war demonstrators who
temporarily blocked access to the Congress Centre where dozens of
presidents, ministers and military leaders were attending the NATO
summit. No violence was reported, but at least three demonstrators were
detained during the four-hour march through the streets of Prague. The
demonstrators marched from nearby streets and squares towards Nuselsky
Bridge leading to the Congress Centre. They stood chanting and waving
banners for more than an hour across the span from the Congress Centre
The police, equipped with water cannons and riot gear, stood in front of the bridge until the protesters gave up and marched away. The demonstration was the largest since a coalition of groups called AntiNATO started protests on Tuesday, but far below organisers' expectations. They hoped 10,000 people would rally in Prague, but many would-be protesters from other European countries were turned away at the Czech border.
The Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski has said the day will "become history". Slovakia's Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has responded to the NATO invitation by saying it was a "milestone" for his country on its road to long-term democracy. The Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus has said the invitation by NATO to join the alliance represented a "big day" for his country, adding he was certain Lithuanians everywhere would be pleased. Bulgaria's Prime Minister Simeon Sackskoburggotski has told the Bulgarian national radio that joining NATO "will be among the most significant events for Bulgaria in the 21st century". The Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel has said the invitation for Slovenia represents international acknowledgement of the progress made by the former communist entity.
The leaders of NATO member countries have agreed to back UN efforts to disarm Iraq but the alliance, divided over the prospect of an eventual conflict, stopped well short of suggesting any collective action. "NATO allies stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the UN to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq, without conditions or restrictions," an alliance communiqué issued at the summit said.
The first of several planned demonstrations protesting the NATO summit
have begun in the Czech capital: in Prague's historic centre some four
hundred communist supporters came out Wednesday to rally around
communist party leader Miroslav Grebenicek; they carried portraits of
communist revolutionaries, the Soviet flag, and banners decrying
capitalism. Speaking against the alliance, Mr Grebenicek told listeners
that there was no justification for NATO's existence, and equated NATO
strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999 with "war crimes". He also called it
a disgrace that the NATO summit was being held in Prague at all.
Elsewhere thirty left-wing demonstrators gathered at a Prague square earlier in the day in protest of the summit: an organiser from one protest group, the Initiative Against War, told reporters the demonstration decried the possible military action looming over Iraq. He added his organisation was against violence of any kind. These protesters later joined the communists, making their way throughout the city singing songs and shouting slogans; some of the protestors wore scarves partially covering their faces. Police looked on but did not have to intervene as both demonstrations took place without any violent incidents
Meanwhile, one more protest taking place Wednesday evening is a gathering of anarchists who are using noise to protest the summit outside one of its venues, Prague's Obecni dum, the historic Municipal House, where Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda is holding a special dinner for delegation members in Prague due to the summit. A strong police presence has made itself felt since early in the day, the area is completely blocked off, but police have not had to intervene. A little over two hundred anarchist protestors have gathered so far, beating drums, and using other instruments to cause as much noise as possible. Loudspeakers, delivered by a small truck, have been set-up some three hundred metres from the historic building; so far the protest has gone peacefully. Dozens of photographers, journalists, and TV crews are also at the scene. The anarchists are said to be protesting what they call politicians' disdain to world hunger.
After meeting with US president George Bush Wednesday Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said the Czech Republic would support an allied military strike against Iraq if Saddam Hussein fails to comply with the UN Security Council's resolution. Czech officials have also suggested that the headquarters of the North Atlantic Alliance for the battle against weapons of mass destruction could be based in the Czech Republic.
As delegates to the NATO summit arrive in Prague, the police has stepped up its presence in the streets of the Czech capital. Twelve thousand policemen and four thousand soldiers have been assigned to protect the 2,000 summit delegates from anti-NATO demonstrators and terrorists. Over the next three days some parts of the Czech capital will be closed to the public.
Speaking about the challenges facing NATO George Bush said in Prague that his priorities are to prepare the alliance for its new mission in combating international terrorism as well to line up European support for possible confrontation with Iraq. The US president also indicated that planned NATO enlargement to include new members would strengthen the capability of the alliance to fight against global terrorism. During the two-day summit seven east European nations will be invited to join the nineteen member alliance. NATO leaders are also expected to give the green light on the creation of a strike force for high-intensity warfare, as well as to give the go-ahead for the redesigning of NATO's increasingly out-dated command structure.