of H.E. Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania,
Deputy Secretary General,
Mr. Algirdas Saudargas
Ladies and Gentlemen!
Brussels increasingly becomes an indivisible part of our daily life, but addressing the North Atlantic Council is always a great privilege. It is very encouraging to see many familiar faces around this table. I recall recent meetings in Vilnius during this year's Vilnius Conference "Euro-Atlantic Integration as a Key Aspect of Stability". It is my pleasure to see colleagues from Budapest, Prague and Warsaw in this room and look forward to welcoming you soon as full members. Today, as we move closer to the date of important decisions, allow me to share with you Lithuania's vision and practical efforts with regard to the approaching Washington Summit.
I cannot touch upon the forthcoming Summit without mentioning the Kosovo crisis. Together with you, over the past several months, we have closely followed the development of the situation in and around this region. It has become a major subject to the Alliance and also us - despite being thousands of miles away - because of humanitarian sufferings and violations of the basic rules of liberty and democracy. I believe those problems cannot leave anyone indifferent. This proves once again that nowadays the security of Europe is indivisible and that the Alliance together with its partners is capable of addressing new challenges. Lithuania has strongly supported the position and the efforts of the Alliance directed to ensure full compliance of the Yugoslav federal government and Kosovo's Albanians to UN Security Council resolutions No.1199 and 1203. To that end we proposed 10 people to participate in OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission and remain ready to contribute with troops and other means, if necessary, to allied efforts in Kosovo. Recently Lithuanian authorities have approached the Alliance indicating that as a result of NATO's decision to launch the "extraction force" mission, Lithuania has begun considering the possibility of contributing to the NATO-led efforts.
It is in our common interest that NATO remains a strong military Alliance capable of defending its members and our common values against any potential threat as it celebrates its 50th anniversary and steps into a new millennium with new missions and tasks. It should be capable of achieving a rapid consensus for decisive and credible action in crises when our common values are threatened. We seek that our accession to this Alliance would make it even stronger.
In less than two weeks at this very place, the allied Ministers will discuss ongoing security issues and look into decisions for the next year's Washington Summit on how to further expand and strengthen security and stability on the continent. As the new Strategic Concept is worked out we expect NATO, in parallel to the recognition of its core function of collective defence, to initiate planing and preparations for non-Article 5 missions with interested partner and aspiring countries to protect common values and security interests. In this regard, the political-military framework for NATO-led PfP operations and development of the future multinational units concept are central elements. We also look forward to seeing NATO's commitment to enlargement opening itself for interested and qualified aspiring members to become part of the Alliance strategy on the threshold of the next century.
The success of the Alliance over the past 50 years in preserving peace in Europe is the solid base for my true optimism regarding the chances of future NATO enlargement. The process should also be built on the achievements reached in Madrid last summer and the encouraging results of the voting on the three invited countries' pre-accession protocols in the majority of Parliaments of NATO member states, including the U.S. Senate. I look forward to welcoming these states, particularly our immediate neighbour Poland, as full members. I am confident that these countries who have gone the similar way of liberation from totalitarism will add important arguments to the common understanding behind NATO enlargement making it a true ongoing process equipped with the necessary instruments and tools in support of the aims of aspiring members.
Lithuania expects that in Washington next Spring the Heads of NATO states and governments will launch the next round of NATO enlargement and will invite qualified candidates, including Lithuania, to start accession negotiations. Although, each country will be judged on its own merits, the opening of the Alliance should maintain a balance in Southern and Northern Europe geography as a tool to send only positive signals to both directions.
It is understandable that the candidate countries desire the enlargement process to be credible. First of all it should become a truly continuous process, with regular review of countries' performance, progress in preparations, first and foremost providing a real two way dialogue with the view to assist the aspiring members in their efforts to contribute to the security of their countries and citizens as well as to the joint allied endeavours in Europe. I believe and expect that the fully transformed intensified dialogue and qualitatively new planing and review process - PARP - could become such a tool in assisting aspiring countries in their aims and practical preparations.
We believe that Lithuania meets the necessary requirements and is ready to start accession negotiations. Our preparations for membership encompass the strengthening of democratic institutions and a growing market economy, building credible defence forces, contributing to peace and stability in Europe, and good neighbourly diplomacy.
One of the instruments supporting our aspirations and practical steps towards NATO membership is the U.S. - Baltic Charter signed in January of this year. The signing of the Charter has boosted bilateral relations, investments and U.S. presence in the Baltic Sea region in general. We are very pleased with the results of the recent visit to Lithuania of eight U.S. Senators, led by Finance Committee Chairman Sen. William V. Roth. We have been reassured and encouraged that there is a determination to continue NATO enlargement and that we are on the right track with our preparations.
Rapid economic development allowed us to increase defence spending, to modernise the Lithuanian defence forces and to move towards full interoperability with NATO. For these purposes, the Lithuanian Parliament has significantly increased the defence budget, which amounts to 1.5% of GDP in 1998. With balanced growth, we expect spending to be 2% of GDP by 2001. In a word, Lithuania is approaching the level of defence spending recommended for NATO members that will allow us to satisfy the requirements of a modern defence system.
I want to ensure you that we have a clear strategy and economically based plans for developing our armed forces and we will continue our preparations heading for the Washington summit and far beyond. A team of U.S. military experts headed by Major General Kievenaar from the Office of the Secretary of Defence, analysed our defence posture earlier this year, and concluded that "Lithuania has an attainable plan, the plan is resources supported and it is being implemented".
Our spending is based on a growing economy. In 1997, GDP increased by 5.7%. The rate of annual inflation in Lithuania is consistently among the lowest in Central and Eastern Europe and reached a record single digit low of 3.7% in October 1998. The Ministry of Finance forecasts inflation for 1998 to be less than 6%. The volume of investments has grown significantly over the recent years. During the first ten months of 1997, investments into Lithuania's economy amounted to USD 400 million, and now will exceed USD 1 billion.
During the last few years, much was achieved on the practical side of integration and co-operation with the Alliance. Together with our Danish colleagues we are pleased to share the experience of our bilateral co-operation with other countries. Since PARP Interoperabily Objectives Implementation Plan was developed by Lithuania in co-operation with Denmark and was presented here at NATO HQ, it has become a useful model for other NATO members and partners. I could also mention active participation in many military exercises, including the major "Baltic Challenge" exercises in Lithuania in July with over 5000 troops. I believe it is important that defence build-up is proceeding in a clear and transparent manner. The NATO/EAPC seminar on developing Baltic defence structures organised in Vilnius earlier this month was a witness for it. I hope that the participation of representatives from Belorus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine in this seminar will serve as encouragement to these countries to co-operate with NATO more actively. Our experience proved the clear necessity to further co-ordinate the efforts involving all governmental structures. The special interagency working group is being set up to facilitate information exchange and co-ordination of Lithuanian integration into NATO. I could also mention efforts raising public awareness on security and NATO issues and a special seminar to be held next week in Palanga.
I would like to shortly mention our activities in relations with our neighbours and our role in the Baltic Sea region. You could find many facts in a short overview of our efforts which is on your tables, so I will only dwell on certain elements of our good neighbourly diplomacy. First and foremost relations with Poland, Baltic and Nordic countries are expanding and strengthening. Lithuania has built an extensive network of working relations and joint bilateral and multilateral institutions connecting the Baltic states through Poland to the rest of Europe. We are committed to further development of joint Baltic defence-related projects, for example, using BALTBAT in NATO-led peace operations as well as making it part of our growing defence structures. Lithuania has taken the lead in establishing the BALTNET air surveillance network in the Baltic States hosting the regional centre in our country. It will be operational next year. Our joint battalion with Poland is another important unit on the practical side of our co-operation complementing the existing joint Parliamentary, Presidential and Governmental structures. Our strategic partnership with Poland is consolidating as it encompasses firm support not only between our two countries but also between our communities abroad. A month ago, the Polish American Congress passed a resolution expressing "strong support for admission of Lithuania to NATO at the next stage of the Alliance enlargement" committing itself to work towards this goal "with the same enthusiasm as it has fought for NATO membership of Poland".
Today we have an established institutional framework - like the BALTSEA group - to co-ordinate assistance for the development of our defence structures. We are determined to actively use this framework to enhance our preparations.
Our good working relations with Russia have recently been highlighted by the events of the Russian crises. The Lithuanian Government assigned USD 1.25 mln. for humanitarian assistance for our neighbouring Kaliningrad region. Part of that assistance has already been provided directly to recipients and I am proud to say that we were able to assist our neighbours when necessary. Such means are of real help in building confidence in the region and creating solid bases for bilateral co-operation and trust. Current Lithuanian presidency of the Council of Baltic Sea States and the Baltic Council of Ministers gives us a unique opportunity to project our initiatives and lead the co-ordination of efforts.
I believe that Lithuania's activities as an active aspiring member and PfP partner will help to transform the Russian misperceptions of NATO enlargement. We positively assess recent statements of Minister Ivanov in support of every country's right to choose its own direction and organisations of integration.
With regard to our immediate eastern neighbour Belorus, Lithuania promotes cooperation activities with it aiming to contribute to the development of democracy, rule of law, creation of civic society and the re-establishment of OSCE norms in this country. Practical initiatives to strengthen regional cooperation with Belarus include various seminars to acquaint Belarussian representatives with electoral laws and polling principles; to enhance cooperation in the fields of media and human rights; and to facilitate student exchanges.
A couple of weeks ago, the Presidents of Lithuania and Belarus confirmed their respect for the same right of each state to be free to choose international political economic defence alliances and security arrangements. I want to stress once again that we perceive NATO as a defence alliance never threatening or claiming something from its neighbours. I believe that NATO's inviting Lithuania, which maintains good bilateral relations with Russia and Belorus, would contribute to the development of new Alliance partnership relations with both countries.
Let me conclude by emphasising once again our European and transatlantic commitment to common values. We will continue on our path as we have been fighting for our and your freedom. The Alliance needs a vision encompassing the Baltic region as part of its strategy in the 21st century. It needs to promote its values, expanding them in mutually beneficial ways through the admission of countries clearly committed to them and qualified to share the burden of preserving peace and enhancing prosperity in Europe. I have no doubt that this process will also encompass Lithuania in the near future.