NATO eyes expansion - but not for all who want to join

(dpa) - A dispute over enlarging NATO in the Balkans and towards an angry Russia was set Wednesday to dominate talks at a major three-day summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest.

"My country's position is clear: NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan (MAP)," US President George W Bush said in a speech in Bucharest on Wednesday morning.

It is "too early" for Georgia and Ukraine to receive a MAP, replied German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her arrival.

Five countries are currently pushing for a closer relationship with NATO: Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia.

The two formerly Soviet republics have asked to be given a MAP, which should pave the way towards an offer of membership in the future.

That aim has been fiercely opposed by Russia, which threatened to target missiles on Ukraine and recognize the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions if such a move ever materialized.

"Russia is not our enemy. We are working toward a new security relationship with Russia whose foundation does not rest on the prospect of mutual annihilation," Bush said.

Some NATO members had argued that a decision to offer Georgia and Ukraine a MAP just as a new Russian president is set to take power would be to throw away a golden opportunity to improve relations.

On Friday, outgoing President Vladimir Putin is set to join the NATO leaders for talks on thorny issues ranging from Kosovo to US plans to site anti-ballistic-missile defences in Europe.

NATO officials said that they hoped for a constructive meeting.

The other three countries, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, all already hold a MAP. At NATO's last summit, in Riga in 2006, alliance leaders sent the trio a "clear signal" that they would be invited into the organization at Bucharest if they met NATO standards.

Diplomats on Wednesday indicated that Croatia and Albania were all but certain to receive an invitation by Thursday morning.

But Macedonia's fate was threatened by a dispute over its name with Greece, which sees Skopje's use of the name "Macedonia" as an inherent claim on its own northern province.

"No solution (of the name issue) means no invitation" for Macedonia, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni told reporters as she set off for Bucharest.

However, NATO officials on Wednesday ruled out the possibility that a rejection of Macedonia would also lead to the rejection of its neighbour Albania - an option some NATO countries had raised as a way of reducing the negative impact of such a move on Macedonia.

"What happens in the context of one country will not affect the aspirations of others," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

As well as discussing enlargement, NATO's leaders are set to meet on Thursday with their counterparts from all those countries which have contributed troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are among the 60 world leaders set to attend the meeting, together with top representatives of the European Union and the World Bank.

Speaking shortly after his arrival in Bucharest, Bush said the alliance must "maintain its resolve and finish the fight in Afghanistan."

As part of that fight, NATO launched on Wednesday its own online TV news channel aimed at challenging the Taliban's current supremacy in media operations in Afghanistan.

The meeting in Bucharest opened amid tight security, with an estimated 35,000 security officers including army units on patrol. Some 47 anti-NATO activists were apprehended by police.

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