WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States is taking another step toward getting formerly communist Albania and Croatia folded into the NATO alliance.
President Bush planned to meet Friday with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and sign so-called accession protocols paving the way for the two Balkan countries' final membership in the military alliance..
The White House invited to the signing ceremony about 160 lawmakers, members of the diplomatic corps, the U.S. ambassadors to Albania and Croatia, and members of Albanian-American and Croatian-American groups.
NATO leaders agreed at a summit earlier this year in Romania to invite Albania and Croatia into the alliance. However, the alliance rebuffed U.S. attempts to begin the process of inviting Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, to join. Despite strong U.S. backing to bring them in, Germany, France and some other alliance members opposed the move, fearing it would provoke Russia.
The idea of NATO enlargement on its doorstep has irked the Russians.
Ties between Russia and NATO members have been further strained by the Georgia-Russia conflict. The war erupted in August when Georgia launched an attack to regain control over South Ossetia, which broke from Georgian control in the early 1990s. Russian forces swiftly repelled the attack and drove deep into Georgia.
Albania and Croatia will be eligible to join NATO when all 26 allies have ratified the accession protocols. Slovakia and Hungary have ratified them to date. NATO officials hope Albania and Croatia will be able to participate as full members at next year's summit.
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