Friday, 4 April 2008

4 April 2008

BUCHAREST: I can’t help feeling that if Romania’s unlamented Communist president Nicolae Ceausescu were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave. Something like that, anyway.

His vast, hideous monstrosity, the House of the People (now less grandiloquently named the Parliament Palace), is draped in NATO banners. Yes, NATO, in Bucharest, a city that less than 20 years ago epitomised all that was rotten behind the Iron Curtain.

The building is reputed to the second biggest in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington. (People who know more about big buildings than I do say it isn’t – all I can tell you for sure is that it is definitely big.) And it’s where this week’s NATO summit is being held, which means that someone, somewhere has a finely developed sense of irony. Three thousand delegates, the same number of journalists – and still the place seems half empty.

As for NATO, well, it’s big, and getting bigger. It has 26 members now, including 10 which less than 20 years ago were in the Soviet bloc – and two more, Albania and Croatia, now accepted for future membership. Albania? I know, it’s hard to keep up sometimes.

The whole point about NATO, of course, is that it was founded as – and still is – a defence organisation. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which happens to have been signed exactly 59 years ago today, says: “An armed attack against one or more [members] shall be considered an attack against them all …” which is comforting if you’re a small, vulnerable nation with a large and powerful neighbour.

And on the subject of large and powerful neighbours, President Putin is here today (I’m writing this before we know what he intends to say) – the word is that he intends to be in a mood more mellow than melodramatic. Next month, he’ll become Prime Minister Putin, so he may also be in semi-valedictory mood.

NATO’s great achievement over the past 59 years has been to convince the US that its own security depends at least in part on Europe’s security. President Bush is keen to entice more and more former Soviet bloc nations into the NATO tent; but some of his European allies aren’t so sure that tweaking Moscow’s nose is such a great idea. But Mr Bush won’t be coming to any more NATO summits, so the feeling here is “Let’s wait to see who’s in the White House this time next year.”

First in Kosovo, and now in Afghanistan, NATO troops have gone into action “out of theatre”, which is soldier-speak for countries that aren’t NATO members. The thinking is that if NATO members’ security is threatened, either by the Taliban harbouring al-Qaeda, or by ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, NATO has the right to intervene. But Kosovo is still a big headache, and Afghanistan an even bigger one. Which means this is a pretty sombre summit.

And if you’re wondering why I haven’t said anything about Zimbabwe this week, it’s because the situation is still too volatile and confused to make any sense of. As soon as I think I can discern a likely outcome, you’ll be the first to know.

Next week, I’ll be in Italy to report on the elections there. It looks as if Silvio Berlusconi is on his way back again. I’ll be in touch …

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