WASHINGTON -- President Bush signed papers Friday to formally declare U.S. support of NATO membership for Albania and Croatia.
At a White House ceremony, Bush signed accession protocols that moved the two Balkan countries one step closer to membership in the expanding military alliance.
"The citizens of Albania and Croatia have overcome war and hardship, built peaceful relations with their neighbors and helped other young democracies build and strengthen free societies," he said.
"Once Albania and Croatia formally join NATO, their people can know if any nation threatens their security, every member of our alliance will be at their side."
Bush said the U.S. looks forward to the day when NATO embraces all the nations of the Balkans, including Macedonia. He also reiterated U.S. support for prospective NATO members Ukraine, Georgia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bush added, "The door to NATO membership also remains open to the people of Serbia should they choose that path."
The ceremony followed Bush's meeting in the Oval Office with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who noted that with Albania and Croatia, 28 nations will be members of the alliance.
"Their accession will be a boon for NATO, as it will strengthen our common effort to safeguard and promote security and stability," de Hoop Scheffer told a room filled with 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.
"It will also be a boon for southeast Europe and a vivid demonstration that southeast Europe can shed its tragic past."
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.
"We strengthen America's partnership with nations that once found themselves in the shackles of communism," Bush said about the enlargement of NATO, which 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 of 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.