Baltics Look Longingly at NATO

TARTU, Estonia — Where young Estonians once studied tractor mechanics and animal husbandry, today the three Baltic States are training an elite military corps they hope will qualify them for NATO membership.

At the Baltic Defense College, housed in a former agricultural university, the smell of fresh paint still wafts through the halls, where officers wearing the uniforms of a dozen European countries rub shoulders every day.

NATO is expected to decide on new members at a summit in 2002, and the Baltic Defense College is a cornerstone in all three nations’ efforts to prove their readiness to join the alliance.

Although lumped together by the outside world, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in fact have very distinct cultures — and a weak sense of regional identity.

In the past, the three tiny republics were united only in their collective desire to break free from the Soviet Union. Now, a decade after independence, they are beginning to realize that entry into Western institutions like NATO and the European Union likewise requires regional cooperation.

Last spring, the Baltic Defense College graduated its first class of students, most of whom are young officers from the Baltic region. Given the college’s auspicious beginnings as a model for regional cooperation, three Bosnian students are expected to attend the college next year. Officials here say that the intent is to form a nucleus for a similar institution in the Balkans.

At a summit last week in Riga, Latvia, Baltic military commanders signed a dozen agreements that stressed the need for defense cooperation.

Supported by NATO countries — as well as by traditionally neutral states such as Sweden and Switzerland — the college is bringing the ways of Western militaries to a region anxious to join the trans—Atlantic alliance after decades of Soviet rule.

“There is no doubt that our graduates will enhance the stated goal of joining NATO,” says US Army Lt. Col. William LaGrone, a member of the college’s directing staff. “We will provide a corps of officers that will know the NATO language.”

That language is English, the lingua franca of NATO, and one of the biggest challenges to the students, says Lt. Col. LaGrone. Working in small groups with at least one student from a NATO country, the officers are forced to consider a range of perspectives when solving problems.

“We discuss issues with officers from other countries. It’s the main learning experience here,” says Maj. Toivo Treima, a student who serves on the Estonian General Staff. “Working in an international environment is a new experience for many officers — as well as for some teachers. From that point of view, it’s not only an experiment, but also a preparation for NATO.”

As members of the alliance’s Partnership for Peace program, the three Baltic States have received NATO support in forming a number of other joint defense projects: a peacekeeping battalion, a naval squadron, and a regional air surveillance network. The United States, which signed a Charter of Partnership with the three Baltic States in 1998, is one of the main backers of greater regional cooperation.

“In the military sphere, I think NATO — and Partnership for Peace — are forces in the opposite direction [of competition],” says Michael Boyle, spokesman for the US Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania. “Institutions like the Baltic Defense College are excellent steps to help the Baltic States remember their sense of ‘oneness.’”

Still, the three countries often quibble among themselves about the speed and timing of integration into Western institutions. While Lithuania is consistently mentioned as being the top Baltic candidate for NATO’s next round of enlargement, Latvia and Estonia are opposed to only one of the three nations joining the alliance.

Lithuania’s drive to become a NATO member is difficult enough, and represents the hurdles that all three countries share.

Not only must Vilnius persuade NATO how its armed forces of 13,000 would benefit the alliance, it also has to convince Moscow that its membership will not threaten Russia’s security. Perhaps the biggest challenge is on the home front, as opinion polls have shown that less than 50 percent of Lithuanians see any sense in joining NATO.

A local politician once compared Lithuania’s move to join the alliance to the extravagant wishes of a poor man to wear a fur coat. “NATO membership is normal sports attire,” says Valdemaras Sarapinas, Lithuania’s vice minister for defense. “Security has a price and we have to pay it.”

The Lithuanian government’s goal of increasing defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product — or some $220 million — has been controversial in a country still struggling to make the transition to a free—market economy.

“The training of officers is priority No. 1,” says Mr. Sarapinas. “Many of our young officers have received a Western education. Having a Western level of military education is a unique example of how we can contribute [to NATO] ourselves.”

Whatever decisions are made on NATO expansion, the college is intended to become a self-sustaining institution. Within a decade, an officer from a Baltic republic is expected to take over the college’s leadership from the current Danish commandant.

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