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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Romania, Bulgaria Closer to NATO

BUCHAREST, Romania -- The post-Sept. 11 strategic importance of the Black Sea region, which has served as a staging area for the Afghan war and could be used in an attack on Iraq, has catapulted Romania and Bulgaria into serious consideration for membership in NATO, according to U.S., NATO and East European diplomats.

The two countries are getting favorable consideration despite long-standing concerns in Western capitals about whether they are serious about democratic reform, military readiness and efforts to fight corruption.

With four or five other post-communist countries all but certain to receive invitations to join the alliance at a summit in Prague in November, NATO is on the threshold of its largest expansion ever.

Determined to be on that list, Bulgaria and Romania are working closely with the United States in the campaign in Afghanistan to show how valuable they can be as military partners. The two countries "are making the best use of this tragic opportunity,'' the Bulgarian foreign minister, Solomon Pasi, said in an interview here in the Romanian capital.

In November and December, U.S. tanker aircraft based in Bulgaria flew about six missions a day to refuel warplanes in the Afghan theater, according to U.S. and Bulgarian officials. A Bulgarian military airport in the Black Sea is now a de facto U.S. base with about 200 Americans stationed there.

Both countries have also opened their airspace unconditionally and offered the use of all land and port facilities. Twenty U.S. military flights to or from Afghanistan cross Romania each day, officials here said.

Bulgarian and Romanian troops are serving as peacekeepers in Kabul, and the Romanian government has offered a specialized mountain unit for service in Afghanistan. The two countries have each tripled their presence in international peacekeeping missions in the Balkans to free up allied troops for Afghanistan. And a Romanian military facility in the Black Sea city of Constanza is about to become a staging ground for U.S. troops rotating in and out of the Balkans and possibly other theaters, officials said.

"Sept. 11 transformed the Black Sea into a natural springboard,'' said Romanian foreign minister, Mircea Geoana.

And in the rush to impress the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush , viewed as the critical voice in determining the final list of countries invited to join NATO, Romania and Bulgaria are refurbishing airstrips and ports with the implicit promise that if the United States wishes to use them in future campaigns, including against Iraq, they are available for the asking.

With Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries with U.S. military bases wary of a possible attack on Iraq, the offers have not gone unnoticed in Washington, diplomats said.

U.S. officials continue to say that for the two countries to secure an invitation to join NATO and jettison their image as regional laggards, they must speed political reforms , particularly as regards endemic corruption. The United States and NATO have also singled out the countries' harsh treatment of minorities, particularly of the Roma people.