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Several central and Eastern European countries celebrated the 20th anniversary of the largest expansion of the NATO military alliance, which saw formerly socialist countries become members of the bloc. In Vilnius, Lithuania, military aircraft flew over the city and officials gathered at the main airbase to commemorate the event. President Gitanas Nauseda emphasized the importance of NATO membership for countries like Lithuania, guaranteeing support in the face of growing instability and threats around the world.

Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined NATO on March 29 in 2004, bringing the total membership of the Alliance to 26. These countries began negotiations for accession after the collapse of the Soviet Union and were invited to join at the Prague Summit in November 2002. With the memories of Soviet occupation still fresh in their minds, these nations often warned about the threat of Russia, which has been vindicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They have since provided support to Ukraine and pushed for greater sanctions on Russia, emphasizing the need for a strong defense against Russian aggression.

Most of the former Soviet Republics that joined NATO in the early 2000s spend more than the required 2% of their GDP on defense, reflecting their concerns about Russian threats. Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis recently announced his bid to become the next leader of NATO, highlighting the ongoing threat from Russia and the need for a “renewal of perspectives” that Eastern Europe could provide. He emphasized the importance of strengthening NATO’s eastern flank in response to Russia’s actions in the region as a long-term priority for the alliance.

The seven countries that joined NATO in 2004 are marking the anniversary with a mix of solemn events and shows of force, as well as open-air concerts and exhibitions. Bulgarian Defense Chief Adm. Emil Eftimov described joining NATO as the right choice for his country, particularly given the current security situation. These celebrations highlight the significant impact of NATO membership on these nations, providing a sense of security and support in the face of external threats.

NATO was established in the aftermath of World War II with the goal of promoting stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. The alliance has expanded over the years to include countries from central and Eastern Europe, providing a sense of collective security in the face of growing threats. The 20th anniversary of the largest expansion of NATO serves as a reminder of the importance of a united front in the face of global challenges, particularly in the context of ongoing tensions with Russia and other potential threats to regional security.

Overall, the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of NATO’s expansion highlight the continued relevance of the alliance in the face of evolving security challenges. The commitment of former Soviet Republics and other Eastern European countries to NATO reflects the shared values of democracy, security, and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. As the alliance looks to the future, leaders like Klaus Iohannis emphasize the need for a strong defense against threats from adversaries like Russia, ensuring that NATO remains a vital force for peace and security in the region.

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