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Senate ratifies NATO expansion treaty

Bush hails move

President Bush welcomes foreign ministers of the seven eastern European nations preparing to join NATO, during remarks in the White House on Thursday.
President Bush welcomes foreign ministers of the seven eastern European nations preparing to join NATO, during remarks in the White House on Thursday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate endorsed NATO membership Thursday for seven eastern European countries that President Bush said have "won their place among free nations," including three former Soviet republics and a piece of the former Yugoslavia.

In a White House ceremony Thursday afternoon, Bush said the prospective NATO members will serve as an example to emerging democracies worldwide.

"The nations of central and eastern Europe are one of history's great examples of the power and appeal of liberty," he said. "We believe that example will be followed and multiplied throughout the world."

The Senate voted 96-0 to ratify a treaty bringing those seven nations -- Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- into the alliance.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, called it "another important step toward making Europe whole and free."

The vote came on the 58th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany, which ended World War II in Europe but yielded a four-decade standoff between NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

Bulgaria and Romania are former Warsaw Pact members, and Slovakia was formed when ex-Warsaw Pact member Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1992. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, while Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's constituent republics to secede, in 1991.

Their foreign ministers watched from the Senate gallery as the votes were cast Thursday morning. All supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, because "They understand that freedom is not free."

The Iraq war provoked sharp disagreement among NATO allies, with France and Germany opposing the invasion while Britain, Italy, Spain and the eastern European members supported it.

Bush said NATO faces new challenges in the battle against global terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He said the invitees "have proven themselves to be allies by their action, and now it is time to make them allies by treaty."

"This morning's vote in the Senate brings that day closer," he said.

The United States is the third of NATO's 19 members to ratify their entry, after Canada and Norway. Three other former Warsaw Pact states -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- joined NATO in 1999.

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