President Bush Meets with Central and East European Coalition at White House Briefing; Signs NATO Accession Protocols for Croatia and Albania

Washington, DC (JBANC) — President George W. Bush thanked leaders from the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) for their support of the NATO enlargement process during a briefing at the White House on Friday, October 24. The event took place prior to a ceremony in which President Bush signed Protocols of Accession to help bring Croatia and Albania a step closer to formal NATO membership in 2009.

The Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. (JBANC) and its three parent organizations are members of the CEEC and were represented at the briefing by Marju Rink-Abel and Mati Kõiva (Estonian American National Council), Gustavs Plato and Peteris Blumbergs (American Latvian Association), Monika Ramanauskaite (Lithuanian American Council), and Karl Altau of JBANC.

At the briefing in the State Dining Room, President Bush spoke to the group of 33 CEEC members for nearly half an hour about the future of NATO, the priorities of his administration, and its accomplishments. He thanked the CEEC for its role in supporting previous rounds of NATO enlargement, which included bringing in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the alliance in 2004. President Bush emphasized that the work of the CEEC must continue during the next presidential administration and that NATO must take in those countries that aspire to and are ready to share the burdens of membership, including Macedonia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

The CEEC was also briefed by United States Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker and Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives and External Affairs Barry Jackson. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Deputy National Security Advisor Judith Ansley were also present at the gathering, along with Damon Wilson, Adam Sterling, and Maria Germano of the National Security Council, and Vanessa Beebe from the Office of Public Liaison.

Other topics discussed at the briefing included the President’s Freedom Agenda, the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, DC, the Visa Waiver Program, issues facing Ukraine and Georgia, support of democracy building in Belarus and Cuba, the upcoming 60th NATO Summit in 2009, and current U.S. – Russian relations.

The CEEC presented to the White House its October 2008 Position Statement, covering many of the issues brought up at the briefing, and also including concerns regarding funding assistance to the Central and Eastern European region, U.S. international broadcasting, energy security, human and minority rights, and learning lessons from and prevention of totalitarian crimes and genocide.

The CEEC represents nineteen U.S.-based national organizations and over 20 million Americans in the United States. It was formed in 1993.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer later joined President Bush in comments at the signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. All 26 NATO members must sign and ratify the amendments to the NATO Treaty in order to bring in new members to the alliance. Ambassadors from Croatia and Albania also attended the event along with Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), foreign policy leaders, members of the diplomatic corps, and other members from U.S. ethnic diaspora organizations.

Following the events, EANC President Marju Rink-Abel commented on behalf of JBANC to say that the organizations are “pleased that the administration invited the Central and East European Council to attend the signing of the protocols. It is important that the CEEC be seen as a strong voice for the interests of East and Central European nations.”

American Latvian Association President Juris Mezinskis added that “Given the continuing threats to international security posed by the recent attack on Georgia, [ALA] is delighted to see continued progress with implementing NATO’s Open Doors policy and welcomes public statements which would emphasize that Article 5 has the same literal meaning for all members of NATO.”

Saulius Kuprys, President of the Lithuanian American Council remarked that “The [LAC] supports the expansion and strengthening of the Atlantic Alliance. It is the best guarantor of peace and stability in the Western Hemisphere. The inclusion of Albania and Croatia today is one more positive step in maintaining freedom and promoting democracy among nations. Furthermore, we urge further expansion of NATO membership, as this is the only rational course in assuring international harmony and peace.

CEEC members, including JBANC, also attended an October 17 event in the Rose Garden at the White House, in which President Bush announced that seven countries, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, had completed necessary requirements in order to join the Visa Waiver Program. Citizens of those countries will be eligible to travel without a visa to the United States possibly already before 2009.