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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Expanded NATO Tries to Reassure Moscow

BRUSSELS -- Flags of seven new NATO members from former Communist Europe rose at alliance headquarters for the first time Friday, marking the biggest expansion in the pact's 55-year history.

However, Russia expressed doubt whether expansion of the NATO alliance would improve Europe's stability, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for "structures" in which no one would feel excluded.

The emotional ceremony began with a military band playing the national anthems of the newcomers -- Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia.

Afterward, foreign ministers of the seven newcomers joined their counterparts from the 19 other members, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for talks on new challenges facing the alliance -- including Afghanistan, arms control and the fight against terrorism.

The seven countries officially joined the alliance Monday during a ceremony in Washington hosted by U.S. President George W. Bush. The foreign ministers' meeting here marked their accession into policy-making within the alliance.

NATO's expansion will be followed in a month by the European Union's absorption of 10 new members -- twin moves that represent the end of decades of Cold War division in Europe.

"At last we can feel secure," Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said in Riga, the capital. "It gives us a sense that we've not just recovered our sovereignty, but that we can be assured of preserving it for our children and grandchildren."

Bulgaria declared Friday a national holiday. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, celebrated with parades. City buses in Estonia donned NATO flags.

Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland said that watching his nation's flag rise at NATO headquarters was "one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life."

Despite the euphoria among new members, Russia has expressed concern over the eastward expansion of its Cold War foe. Former Soviet allies Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the alliance in 1999. By taking in Estonia, however, NATO now stands within about 160 kilometers of St. Petersburg.

Mindful of Moscow's concerns, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance was determined to "elevate NATO-Russia relations to a new quality."

After the ceremonies, Lavrov met with the NATO ministers and afterward told reporters that it was "high time to start developing structures that would leave no one feeling excluded."

Officials said Lavrov received assurances that the Baltic states and Slovenia would abide by a Cold War-era European weapons treaty that was signed before they won independence.

In another bid to ease Russian concerns, NATO repeated a pledge to "provide political assurances of restraint" -- diplomatic jargon that the United States and its allies will not deploy large numbers of tanks, planes and troops in the Baltic region.

On his flight back to Washington after the ceremonies, Powell said Russia remains needlessly worried about the expansion of NATO closer to its border despite repeated U.S. assurances. "We are not worried about the old threat of the Soviet Union," he said. "And, my God, if I can say that, it is time for you guys to start believing it."